Wednesday, February 20, 2019 2:43 PM EST
By JACQUES BILLEAUD, AP
PHOENIX (AP) — A longtime advocate for immigrants in Arizona was sentenced Wednesday to 18 months in federal prison and ordered to pay $131,000 in restitution for a felony conviction stemming from his tax preparation business.
Elias Bermudez had previously pleaded guilty to assisting in the preparation of false tax returns, acknowledging that he falsely added dependents, including three children who lived in Mexico, to his clients' tax returns to maximize refundable credits.
Bermudez, 68, led protests more than a decade ago against immigration laws and then-Sheriff Joe Arpaio's crackdowns on immigrants. He is known for kneeling down in front of Arpaio at a 2006 protest to ask the lawman to stop arresting immigrants, a request the sheriff denied.
Bermudez owned a business that helped immigrants prepare immigration and tax documents.
"You were essentially cheating the system and making a living while you were doing it," said U.S. District Judge Diane Humetewa, who rejected Bermudez's argument that he should be sentenced to probation because of his declining health.
At one point, Bermudez told the judge that the Internal Revenue Service should have stopped him from his objectionable practices, leading Humetewa to say, "You are very close to retracting your acceptance of responsibility."
Bermudez relented, apologizing for his conduct and describing himself as a law-abiding person who has tried his best to help clients. "Yes, I did something wrong, and I regret it a lot," Bermudez said.
Authorities say Bermudez prepared 27 false income tax returns from 2010 through 2012 and encouraged clients to list family members living in Mexico, many of whom weren't their children, as dependents.
Dependents must be U.S. citizens or immigrants with permission to live in the United States in order to qualify for the credit.
In pleading guilty, Bermudez acknowledged that he filed one false tax return that listed three Mexican children as dependents, leading to a $4,000 loss for the United States' government. As part of the plea, 26 other charges against Bermudez will be dismissed.
In all, prosecutors say the 27 fraudulent tax returns resulted in a $131,000 loss to taxpayers.
Attorney Kristina Sitton Matthews, who represents Bermudez, argued in court records that her client's advanced age and difficulty in walking after knee replacement surgery would make him vulnerable in prison.
Prosecutor Andrew Stone noted in court records that Bermudez had two prior felony convictions and that his latest conviction. He said another tax preparation business operated by Bermudez was investigated in the 1990s for allegedly preparing false returns.
Bermudez previously worked as a talk show host for a Spanish-language radio show in Phoenix and served as a leader of the group Immigrants Without Borders and as a vice mayor in San Luis, Arizona.
He has a 1987 conviction from Yuma County for soliciting or accepting a bribe and served 18 months in federal prison in the 1990s on another felony conviction for money laundering that involved concealing drug proceeds, prosecutors said.
Also, a county judge previously ordered him to stop offering immigration services after clients alleged they paid for services they never received. Bermudez moved to New Mexico in 2012 but his business was shut down by the attorney general because he wasn't authorized to provide immigration consulting services.
Humetewa pointed out that Bermudez had not stopped committing illegal activity. "Here we are at 68, and at some point enough is enough," Humetewa said.
In his latest criminal case, authorities say they recorded Bermudez, while meeting with undercover IRS agents who posed as potential clients, telling the agents they should include false dependents on their returns to reduce their tax liability.
Prosecutors say the IRS flagged Bermudez as an outlier for his use of refundable tax credits.
They said Bermudez told IRS agents in a recorded interview that he was previously targeted by state law enforcement for other services his business provided because of his advocacy for immigrants.
Follow Jacques Billeaud at twitter.com/jacquesbilleaud.