Wealthy California Tax Cheat Gets Off Easy

Orange County’s Ronald Reagan Federal Courthouse (Photo by R. Scott Moxley)

While Americans who’ve hidden assets in foreign banks and lied to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) about related interest income have been sentenced to substantial prison terms, an Orange County man who cheated the IRS is breathing a sigh of relief.

Elie Waknine grew up in Casablanca with ultra-wealthy Moroccan parents, inherited a fortune, immigrated to the U.S. in 1971, placed at least $4 million in a secret Israeli bank account and, while making millions of dollars in interest, spent years pretending he earned less than $3,000 annually. 

According to the Tax Division of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) in Washington, D.C., Waknine—once self-employed in the fashion industry—falsified his federal income tax returns for a whopping 21 years.

DOJ also ultimately tracked how the Huntington Beach resident shuffled money in coded accounts around Israel and then to Switzerland to France in hopes of illegally dodge reporting requirements. 

In one case to hide ownership, 69-year-old Waknine claimed a murky business entity in Panama owned a portion of his funds.

He even asked foreign banks to put a special hold on mail involving the funds so that none of it would be mailed to his California address and potentially inspected by government authorities. 

“The defendant has no excuse,” federal prosecutors Thomas D. Coker and Elizabeth C. Hadden advised U.S. District Court Judge David O. Carter inside the Ronald Reagan Federal Courthouse in Santa Ana. “He was raised in a wealthy household and inherited millions of dollars. He is well educated, speaks multiple languages and has a stable family. Regrettably, the defendant chose to use these advantages to defraud the United States tax system.”

Though prosecutors originally believed Waknine could face as much as three years in prison, they requested a term of 10 months. 

But Waknine’s criminal defense lawyer argued that his client should be rewarded with no prison time because of “his strong Jewish faith,” church participation, charitable activities, pre-trial guilty plea and willingness to pay more than $2.4 million in penalties. 

Carter bypassed federal sentencing guideline recommendations and instead issued a punishment of probation for two years. 

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