The former Hennepin County chief public defender who resigned amid an investigation indicting him on 17 counts of federal tax evasion pleaded guilty Monday morning.
Kassius Benson appeared in U.S. District Court, admitting before Judge John R. Tunheim that he failed to pay taxes withheld for employees at his Minneapolis-based criminal defense firm, Kassius Benson Law, before taking his public job in January 2021.
As part of his plea deal, Benson must pay the Internal Revenue Service $213,591.81 in restitution. In exchange for pleading guilty to one count of failing to account for and pay over employment taxes, the remaining 16 charges will be dismissed at sentencing in April.
Tunheim said the maximum penalty for the felony offense is up to five years in prison, but he added that the court doesn't typically impose the maximum. The judge asked Benson if he was aware that he will lose the right to hold public office with the felony conviction.
"I'm aware, Your Honor," he said.
Benson's comments in court were mostly brief, yes or no answers. He sat flanked by three attorneys — Daniel Adkins, Edward Ungvarsky and Andrew Wise. In a near empty courtroom gallery his partner, who didn't wish to be named, sat in the front row.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher Lin and Assistant Chief Matthew J. Kluge, who both work in the Justice Department's Tax Division, prosecuted the case and negotiated the plea deal with Benson's legal team.
Before going over facts of the plea, Benson provided some background on his life. He said he was 52, born in Columbus, Ohio, and grew up in Minot, N.D. He earned his law degree from the University of Minnesota and said he is currently employed.
Benson is still senior counsel and lead trial lawyer at his private firm that lists no other employees on its website. His law license is active and in good standing, according to state judicial branch records.
The state Board of Public Defense hired Benson to lead the Hennepin County Public Defenders Office just six months after the IRS lodged its probe into his firm in July 2020.
Minnesota State Public Defender Bill Ward didn't immediately respond to messages seeking comment Monday. Ward previously said he was unaware of the IRS investigation before hiring Benson.
At his private firm, Benson employed at least five people in 2013 and again from 2015-2019, and failed to file proper quarterly forms and turn over $159,262 in taxes he withheld during that stretch, the affidavit said.
As the sole shareholder, he was responsible for the collection and payment of employment taxes and filing the appropriate quarterly IRS forms, according to the federal search warrant affidavit.
A revenue agent began an audit relating to forms that Benson was to have filed in 2017. The agent expanded the investigation to 2013 and 2015-2019 upon finding that Benson had failed to pay employment taxes, unemployment taxes and to file the forms.
The U.S. grand jury indictment charged him with 14 counts of failing to account for and pay the employment taxes due and owed to the IRS on behalf of his employees between 2016 and 2020, for a total nearing $125,000.
Benson was also charged with three counts of aiding and assisting in the preparation and presentation of false and fraudulent tax returns, statements and other documents. The false income tax withheld for those charges is nearly $50,000, according to the indictment.
In June 2022, Benson faced questions about whether he was improperly continuing to take private clients in his new chief public defender job. He said he wasn't.
As chief public defender, he received a $145,288 salary and oversaw 200 employees. His resignation in October 2022 came just two days after Wayzata police cited him for drunken driving.
Benson's legal team provided the following statement to the Star Tribune:
"Kassius Benson accepts responsibility for his actions, for which he is deeply remorseful and which will impact him both personally and professionally for years to come. We look forward to presenting the Court at sentencing with a full picture of the remarkable work he has done in this community and elsewhere over the past 25 years."
Star Tribune staff writer Rochelle Olson contributed to this story.