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March 20, 2006

Used Auto and Repair Business Owner Arrested in $121,000 Tax Theft Case

The owner of a Freeport used automobile and repair business has been arrested on charges that he stole more than $121,000 in sales tax he collected from customers but failed to send in to the state, the Florida Department of Revenue announced.

James Harlan Pope, 40, of Freeport, was arrested by the Walton County Sheriffs Department on March 16 on felony charges relating to failure to file tax returns and pay tax. If convicted, he faces up to 5 years in prison and up to $5,000 in fines, as well as possible repayment of stolen tax, interest, penalty and investigative costs. Pope also faces felony charges related to failure to file tax returns as required by law. Until recently, Pope operated Freeport Auto Center, doing business as same at 17240 Highway 331 South, Freeport, Florida.

According to Revenue Department investigators, Pope routinely collected tax from customers at his business. However, during various periods between January 2001 and December 2004, Pope failed to send in to the state all of the sales taxes that he had collected. Investigators found that Pope had illegally kept $121,023.27 in tax money. Under state law, sales tax is the property of the state at the moment of collection. Department of Revenue staff repeatedly visited and called Pope in an attempt to help him come into compliance with state tax law, but he failed to meet his legal obligations.

"To be fair, tax law must apply uniformly to all businesses," said Jim Zingale, executive director of the Revenue Department. "Tax cheats steal money that the public pays to support vital public services, such as law enforcement and education. They also steal a competitive advantage over honest businesspeople who pay their taxes. The Department of Revenue cannot and will not allow this to occur. "

If you have information about tax theft, please call the Florida Department of Revenue investigations office in Panama City at 850-747-5614.