Saying "My lawyer told me to do it" apparently can be an effective way to avoid a longer prison sentence.
Steven Mark Renner, convicted in December of four counts of tax evasion, was sentenced Wednesday to 18 months in prison -- a significantly shorter term than called for by federal sentencing guidelines. Those guidelines call for a sentence of 41 to 51 months.
In explaining his rationale, U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank repeatedly mentioned a letter he had received from Renner's tax attorney, stating that he stood by his advice to Renner.
Frank did not say he agreed with the attorney's advice. But he gave weight to the fact that Renner, an Internet entrepreneur and former local guitarist who never graduated from high school, followed it.
Renner was indicted in September 2008 for failing to pay more than $300,000 in income taxes between 2002 and 2005. It later was calculated that Renner evaded more than $1.1 million in taxes.
According to the indictment, Renner took money from his company, Cash Cards International, an Internet-based money transmission business, to pay for living expenses and coins, oil wells, art, stamps and vintage musical instruments. The money also went to promote his band, "Stevie Renner and the Renegades."
Renner's tax lawyer told him that he owed no taxes, saying much of the money he took was a loan and the items he bought were investments.
In fall 2004, the Securities and Exchange Commission ordered Renner to submit tax returns for Cash Cards International. He filed them almost two years later, just before his company was raided by the IRS. Assistant U.S. Attorney John Docherty said Renner filed after he became aware of another federal investigation into his company.
Docherty said that following an attorney's advice should not be an excuse for breaking the law. Frank seemed to agree, saying, "I believe that a prison sentence is necessary."
He then gave Renner a year and a half and ordered him to cooperate with the IRS in paying taxes he still owes.
Other investigation continues
Wednesday's sentence resolved one issue hanging over Renner's future. There is another. In February, federal agents raided Renner's businesses -- Inter-Mark and iNetGlobal -- looking for evidence of what they allege is an Internet-based Ponzi scheme. Investigators also seized about $25 million in assets. That investigation is ongoing. Renner has not been charged.
Renner declined to comment after the hearing, but exchanged hugs and handshakes with friends and family members.
"We support our dad," said his son Matt Renner. "He's a good man -- not the criminal that Docherty makes him out to be, that the government makes him out to be."
Jeanne Cooney, a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney's office, said: "Obviously, we are disappointed with the sentence. But we recognize that sentencing is at the discretion of the court."
James Walsh • 612-673-7428