Craig Taffaro

Craig Taffaro

Former Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Craig Taffaro is the man facing trial this week on a dozen tax evasion charges.

A defense attorney claimed Wednesday, however, that Taffaro was just collateral damage as a hard-charging Internal Revenue Service agent hunted bigger game: former Sheriff Newell Normand and Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser.

In one report to his superiors, Special Agent Tim Moore noted that Normand and Taffaro had secured a lucrative "no work" contract for their side business, and he referred to Normand as the "most powerful" sheriff in the state.

“Weren’t you just really looking to get a trophy, a pelt on your wall? Isn’t that what this is all about?” attorney Michael Magner, himself a former federal prosecutor, asked rhetorically.

“No trophies,” Moore replied.

The dramatic exchange came just before the U.S. Attorney’s Office rested its case against Taffaro, who served in local law enforcement for nearly five decades before his retirement last year. The lawman is accused of overstating his business expenses for six years as part of a scheme to cheat the federal government out of taxes he owed.

Moore, the lead agent in the case, walked jurors through Taffaro’s tax returns from 2009 to 2014 to show that Taffaro systematically claimed undocumented expenses for his side business with Normand, CTNN.

CTNN was a brokerage firm that connected the oil services company Harvey Gulf International, owned by the family of businessman Shane Guidry, with Pelican Marine, a food supplier once co-owned by Nungesser. Normand and Taffaro took a cut of about 10 percent for their services.

The government claims that Taffaro lacks almost all of the receipts he needs to show that the nearly $200,000 in expenses he claimed for CTNN were legitimate. To make matters worse, prosecutors say, bank records suggest that Taffaro may have incurred those “expenses” at casinos.

Prosecutors introduced one chart that showed Taffaro withdrew $297,000 in cash at casinos between 2009 and 2014, the years in which he is accused of dodging taxes.

On cross-examination, however, Magner sought to show that Moore was an agent with an unseemly mission. The defense attorney said Moore ignored suggestions that CTNN was a legitimate business as he sought to claim a “trophy.”

Moore’s investigation into CTNN began in 2016 with an anonymous tip about the business. The agent testified that the tip was buttressed by the fact that Taffaro had fallen behind on paying his taxes for years.

By the end of the investigation, Moore concluded in a report that both Taffaro and Normand had secured a “no work” contract to broker food sales from Pelican Marine to Harvey Gulf. He thought there was no way that Taffaro needed to spend thousands every year to keep the business healthy.

“Once they put (the two companies) together, they were getting paid. It did not require any additional work,” Moore said.

Moore, in his final report on CTNN, seemed skeptical of what the two men did to earn the roughly $57,000 apiece the business brought them each year — money on top of their salaries at the Sheriff’s Office, where Normand earned $176,000 and Taffaro $134,000.

“No one can give an account of what, if anything, Taffaro and Normand do to earn the money received,” Moore said in his report, according to testimony Wednesday.

Yet Magner bristled at the suggestion that CTNN did not require the men’s frequent attention. He repeatedly pointed to an interview that Normand gave to federal investigators, in which the former sheriff ticked off efforts the two men made to mediate disputes between their business partners.

Normand testified Monday that the two men wrestled with restive boat captains, late shipments and spoiled food. Moore said he included Normand’s statement as an appendix to his report. 

Meanwhile, Shawn Guidry, the former chief operating officer for Harvey Gulf, testified Tuesday that he dealt directly with Pelican Marine when he had problems, rather than seeking help from CTNN.

Although much of Normand’s testimony Monday supported Taffaro’s claims that CTNN required actual work, Moore said the sheriff was incredulous when federal agents told him about Taffaro’s expenses.

In a June 2016 interview, those agents told Normand that his business partner was claiming a full 93 percent of his CTNN income as expenses.

“I don’t know how you expense 93 percent of your income,” Normand said, according to Moore. “No way. No how. Ain’t no freakin’ way.”

Follow Matt Sledge on Twitter, @mgsledge.

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