Craig Taffaro

Craig Taffaro

Year after year, Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office Chief Deputy Craig Taffaro claimed thousands of dollars of expenses for a side business he co-owned with then-Sheriff Newell Normand.

When the Internal Revenue Service came knocking in 2016, Taffaro struggled to come up with the paperwork for his deductions, which may have saved him as much as $60,000 in taxes between 2009 and 2014.

On Tuesday, Taffaro's longtime accountant said he never saw his client's receipts. There were no shoe boxes full of documents. Instead, Pat Sharp said the pair operated on the honor system every April.

"We had the same conversation. Do you have documentation for these expenses?" Sharp said. "The answer was always 'yes.'"

Taffaro, who retired from the Sheriff's Office last year, entered the second day of his trial in federal court on Tuesday on a raft of tax evasion charges. Prosecutors allege that there never were any receipts because Taffaro invented or inflated the expenses for what was essentially a no-show job.

Sharp, a certified public accountant since 1973, was called as a witness for the prosecution. He said he never forces his clients to drop off their receipts. Instead, he counsels them to hold onto their records for five years in case of an audit.

Sharp said Taffaro always seemed "energetic" about CTNN, the company he and Normand formed not long after Normand was elected sheriff. CTNN acts as a middleman between food service distributor Pelican Marine and Harvey Gulf International, an offshore oil services company. According to Normand's testimony Monday, CTNN has sought other clients without success.

Sharp said some of the expenses Taffaro wanted to write off gave him pause.

In one case, Taffaro wanted to claim a cruise to Alaska. Taffaro explained that he wanted to link up with an oilman who had proved hard to corner. Sharp said he warned his friend.

"You really need to document this one a lot, because it's an unusual expense," Sharp said he told Taffaro.

Taffaro was also often tardy on his taxes. Sharp said there was not a single year between 2009 and 2014 in which his client filed his tax forms by April 15. Every year he sought an extension.

Defense attorney Michael Magner sought to show on cross-examination that Taffaro may have been a rube, but he never meant to cheat. In his opening statement on Monday, Magner emphasized that Taffaro is a high school dropout with only a GED.

"Did Mr. Taffaro ever push back on you?" Magner asked.

"We always had a polite and courteous conversation," Sharp said. "I do not recall Chief Taffaro ever insisting something that may not be deductible."

Magner also insinuated that lead IRS case agent Tim Moore had it out for Taffaro. Sharp testified that Moore showed up to his accounting office one day in June 2016 unannounced.

Moore explained in vague terms that he was conducting an investigation with links to Taffaro, Normand and their wives, Sharp said.

Sharp said he wanted a lawyer. "We didn't get along too well after that," Sharp said.

Sharp also said that at one point, Moore implied that Sharp himself could become a target in the investigation. "I took it personally," Sharp said. "I just didn't have a good feeling about how this was going."

Sharp's insistence that Taffaro knew he needed to hold onto his receipts is a key building block of the government's case. Earlier on Tuesday, another witness also cast doubt on Taffaro's nearly $200,000 in claimed expenses.

Harvey Gulf International is run and partly owned by Shane Guidry, a well-connected businessman and a longtime major in the JPSO's reserves who has been friends with Taffaro and Normand for years. Guidry's twin brother, Shawn, was the company's chief operating officer until 2011.

Shawn Guidry testified that in that role, he coordinated Harvey Gulf's purchases of groceries and other supplies from Pelican Marine.

"I felt responsible for every invoice that I paid on," Shawn Guidry said.

Guidry said he never knew Taffaro to intervene in business disputes between Harvey Gulf and Pelican Marine.

Taffaro, however, has claimed he took an active role in mediating problems as they arose — a role so active that he racked up thousands in expenses.

"I viewed Craig mainly as a salesperson," Shawn Guidry said. "I called Pelican direct."

On cross-examination, Guidry allowed that Taffaro could have gone over his head to talk to his twin brother in New Orleans. Perhaps there were email chains or telephone calls that he missed, Guidry said.

"I might have been in my shipyard or in my office 70 miles away from here," Guidry said.

Follow Matt Sledge on Twitter, @mgsledge.

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