Court upholds Jinwrights' tax fraud conviction
A federal appeals court has upheld the tax fraud convictions of Anthony and Harriet Jinwright, the husband-wife team who once co-pastored Greater Salem Church in west Charlotte.
|Anthony Jinwright||Harriet Jinwright|
The Jinwrights were convicted in May 2010 for failing to report nearly $2.5 million in taxable income between 2001 and 2007. Anthony Jinwright was sentenced to eight years and nine months in prison; Harriet Jinwright received six years and eight months.
In their appeal, the Jinwrights alleged that trial court Judge Frank Whitney made key errors when instructing jurors. They also alleged that Whitney improperly applied evidence from the case during the sentencing phase, which the Jinwrights said resulted in elevated prison terms.
Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III, writing for a three-judge panel of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., rejected every point in the Jinwrights’ request for a new trial. The decision was issued last week.
Much of the appeal centered on issues related to intent -- whether or not the Jinwrights meant to defraud the government. For example, several witnesses testified during the four-week trial that church member frequently gave “love offerings” and other donations to the Jinwrights, money some witnesses described as “gifts,” not income.
But in his instructions to the jury, Whitney told jurors to disregard those statements. Whitney also prohibited the Jinwrights’ attorneys from pursuing that line of testimony.
Under U.S. Tax Code, Whitney said, all compensation given by an employer must be counted as income and cannot be claimed as a gift. Moreover, government prosecutors presented evidence that the Jinwrights were told multiple times by various sources that all money received from the church should be claimed as income on their tax returns.
“To allow the most clever, inventive, and sophisticated wrongdoers to hide behind a constant and conscious purpose of avoiding knowledge of criminal misconduct would be an injustice in its own right,” the appeals court wrote.
According to an IRS agent who testified during the Jinwrights’ trial, Greater Salem paid Anthony Jinwright nearly $3.9 million between 2001 and 2007. It paid Harriet Jinwright nearly $1 million during those same years. The couple also earned tens of thousands of dollars from speaking at other churches.
But during the years in question, the Jinwrights reported slightly more than $1.8 million in taxable income and nearly $1.6 million in personal deductions, which would have left them about $28,000 a year in nondeductible expenses.
Witnesses testified that Greater Salem spent lavishly to support the Jinwrights, paying for costs such as luxury cars, vacations and college tuition for the couple’s daughter. The church eventually sought bankruptcy protection to avoid a foreclosure sale after defaulting on a $5 million loan.
In sentencing the Jinwrights, Whitney used a sentencing model that allowed him to impose additional time in prison because he determined that the Jinwrights abused their authority at the church to conceal their tax fraud. In their appeal, the couple objected, noting, essentially, that the church should no be considered a victim in the case because the congregation did not bring charges against the former pastors.
The appeals court rejected that argument, stating that the Jinwrights had gone to great lengths to manipulate financial records and hide the church’s worsening financial condition from its members.
“The Jinwrights exploited their authority at (Greater Salem) not only to increase their compensation, but also to defraud the government and to conceal their efforts to evade taxes,” the appeals court wrote. “The abuse of trust enhancement allows the sentencing court to punish those who wield their power to criminally take advantage of those who depend upon them most.
As leaders of (Greater Salem),” the court continued, “the Jinwrights were entrusted with the spiritual wellbeing and financial stewardship of their religious community. They exploited the trust of their unsuspecting congregation to conceal criminal acts from the government, as well as the church, and to maintain an extravagant lifestyle lived at the church’s expense.”
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