Some letters and business cards appearing to come from an Akron businessman serving time in jail for stealing payroll taxes were mailed out recently, despite the man’s attorney still saying his client is not involved in the business.
And at least one Akron-area couple who had their taxes done this past weekend said they later discovered that Ronald Conte’s name is on their submitted tax return as a “third-party designee,” giving him authorization to speak to the IRS on their behalf.
Conte, 57, is serving a 59-month prison sentence at the Richland Correctional Institution after being found guilty last spring to charges that he collected taxes from his payroll clients and did not pay them to the local, state and federal agencies. He was ordered to pay $558,102 in restitution to 37 companies involved.
In a story earlier this week, Larry Shenise, Conte’s attorney in a civil case brought on by some of his victims, said Conte had sold his Akron Payroll and Tax business to a friend, who was given permission to operate the business at the same location with a similar name. Akron Income Tax Inc. is at 2215 E. Waterloo Road in Akron.
Shenise said Conte is not involved in the business and had said letters that appeared to have Conte’s name were fixed to remove his name before being sent out this tax season. Shenise now says he erred and a limited number of letters went out with Conte’s name before Shenise became aware. Shenise earlier this week said he was not aware that business cards with Conte’s name were still on display at the business’s front desk.
“Some of the letters did get out before I caught the issue with the name. Apparently, some youths were hired to stuff and label and, as always has been done in the past, two business cards were put in each letter. Nobody gave any thought to Mr. Conte’s name being on the card. By the way, all cards have been removed and destroyed,” Shenise said by email.
After the story appeared in the paper, Darlene and Bob Haren of Springfield Township said they were surprised that they received a letter in the mail signed by Conte with his business card, seeking their business. The Harens had Conte do their taxes for about five years, but thought he was still in jail.
Conte could be eligible for early release by March 2, but his criminal attorney this week said no motion had been submitted and declined to comment on plans. Summit County Prosecutor Sherri Bevan Walsh has said she will oppose any request for early release.
After victims complained to Walsh about the Conte letters, she contacted the prison system. Last week, it imposed disciplinary actions against Conte, including 10 days in “disciplinary housing,” 90 days of email and visitation restrictions and a security review, which may result in a transfer to a higher security prison.
After Darlene and Bob Haren received the letter in the mail, Darlene called two weeks ago and was told “they were currently scheduling Ron in April.”
“They never said a word about him being in jail or that they expected him out soon,” Haren said.
The Harens decided they wanted their taxes done sooner, so they agreed to see a different person last Saturday. Bob Haren said he and his wife were not concerned about Conte or associates doing their taxes since the theft was from businesses and not individuals.
But after seeing the story, they reviewed their submitted tax return and saw that while the tax preparer who worked with them had her name on the return, Conte’s name was listed above their signatures under “third-party designee.”
Darlene Haren is concerned that Conte’s name on her tax return may cause it to be flagged by the IRS.
An IRS spokeswoman said she was not allowed to comment, citing federal taxpayer privacy laws. Instructions on Form 1040 indicate a third-party designee authorizes that person to be called by the IRS to answer any questions during the processing of the return, but does not authorize the designee to receive any refund check, bind the taxpayer to anything, or represent the person before the IRS.
Shenise said that after being notified by a reporter that Conte’s name was on returns, the business said seven returns have Conte’s name.
Conte’s name appeared in error because his name was already in the software that is used yearly and has to be removed from each return, said Shenise, who added he believes it should not affect the taxpayers’ returns.
“That is something that wasn’t caught at first but when it was there has been an effort to make sure that is done with each return. Has an employee forgotten to do that, it is possible, but certainly the intent is not to have Mr. Conte be involved with interaction with the IRS on the part of any client,” Shenise said.
“Mr. Conte is not involved in the business. However the new owner is trying to erase his name from 30 years of active participation and, yes, they have done some things wrong, but they are not intentionally putting his name out there,” Shenise said.
Shenise reiterated that the new owner’s intention is to hire Conte, once released, “as he is the draw.” However, Shenise said he has now instructed the business not to schedule any appointments with Conte.
And while he’s been in prison, Conte has “never once spoken or written to a client from prison,” Shenise said. “He has every desire to see the business succeed because that means more money to the courts and creditors.
An official on Thursday with Walsh’s office said the Summit County Prosecutor’s Office is investigating Conte’s actions to determine if there would be any impact on any potential request for early release.
Betty Lin-Fisher can be reached at 330-996-3724 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her @blinfisherABJ on Twitter or www.facebook.com/BettyLinFisherABJ and see all her stories at www.ohio.com/betty