Craig Taffaro

Craig Taffaro

Former Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office chief deputy Craig Taffaro took the stand in his own defense on Thursday, telling a jury that a stroke of bad luck left him hamstrung in his trial on a dozen charges of tax evasion.

On a flight back from Chicago, he left an iPad with documentation of many of his business receipts in a seat pocket, Taffaro said. United Airlines never found the crucial gadget.

Taffaro’s testimony came on the fourth day of a trial where he faces a maximum of five years in prison. Federal prosecutors allege Taffaro, once a top lieutenant to Sheriffs Harry Lee and Newell Normand, cheated the taxman for six years running by overstating expenses for a side business he co-owned with Normand.

Taffaro, 70, fluctuated between geniality and emotion on the stand. At times, he reminisced about his days under Lee, and at other times, the former lawman wept.

“I did better when I was a police officer on the stand and I wasn’t a defendant,” said Taffaro, as his defense attorney Michael Magner delivered him a box of tissues.

Taffaro said he seethed when the lead prosecutor on the case, Assistant U.S. Attorney Chandra Menon, called him a liar earlier this week.

“I’m much better than the federal government is with my honesty,” Taffaro said. “I know what I did, and that’s why I took offense.”

Over about three hours of testimony on Thursday, Taffaro offered an explanation for nearly all of the accusations the government has thrown against him during the four days of the trial so far.

Thousands of dollars in undocumented business expenses went toward business lunches that he paid for in cash, Taffaro said. He claimed that he spent an average of $160 a week on lunches for deputies or potential business partners at places like Hooters, Gattuso’s, Twin Peaks and Johnny’s Po-Boys.

The $12,000 consulting fee he paid to his wife was for the help she gave the side business he owns with Normand, CTNN, when he was laid up after open-heart surgery.

He spent some money – about $245 a month – on cell phone bills. More money went to the cable internet that he used to perform CTNN duties like sending emails. Even more money went to tailoring Sheriff’s Office uniforms when his weight ballooned to 331 pounds after the surgery.

In addition to the missing iPad, Taffaro said he also lost receipts when the Sheriff’s Office shredded 15 banker’s boxes worth of his records after his retirement last year. The document destruction is office policy, his secretary testified earlier.

Taffaro said that some of the money he claimed as expenses probably should not have been listed in connection with CTNN on his tax forms. However, he claimed that throughout the period in which he is accused of wrongdoing, from 2009 to 2014, he relied on the advice of his tax preparer, Pat Sharp.

“The only thing I cared about is how much I owed, and how much penalties,” Taffaro said.

Taffaro said that looking back, he wished he had never claimed any of the questioned expenses that, taken together, may have saved him roughly $60,000 in taxes. Nothing will ever erase the memory of seeing four federal agents on his front lawn one day in June 2016, he said.

“After seeing those agents, I decided the only way I’d ever claim a deduction again in my life was if I had a priest, a rabbi and a nun documenting my expenses,” Taffaro said.

Taffaro also offered his take on a meeting where only two men were present. In 2008, he was preparing to start a side business that would broker sales between Harvey Gulf International, an oilfield-services company owned by businessman Shane Guidry, and Pelican Marine, a food supplier once co-owned by Taffaro’s son-in-law Billy Nungesser, now the lieutenant governor.

Taffaro said he went to Normand’s office with a standard Sheriff’s Office form for the authorization of an outside business. Normand said Monday that his deputy chief invited him to join the business. Taffaro remembered the exchange differently.

“I had an outside employment form and I asked him,” Taffaro said. “He said he wouldn’t mind something like that.”

Taffaro said he was not especially eager to cut Normand into the business, which ultimately reaped the two men an average of about $57,000 a year for commissions on grocery sales from Pelican Marine to Harvey Gulf. A federal agent who testified earlier this week characterized it as a "no-work" gig.

“But it didn’t bother me,” Taffaro said of Normand's overture. “I didn’t feel intimidated.”

Taffaro said his wife called him “stupid” for essentially agreeing to give Normand take half his earnings from the brokerage business. He thought there might be some value to the arrangement, however.

“When you’re walking up to all these boat companies, it doesn’t seem bad that the sheriff is your partner,” Taffaro said. “Otherwise, you don’t even get in the door.”

U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman said Taffaro’s testimony will continue Friday with cross-examination by the government. Both sides are expected to give closing arguments after that.

Follow Matt Sledge on Twitter, @mgsledge.

msledge@theadvocate.com | (504) 636-7432