Craig Taffaro, the former longtime chief deputy to Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand, pleaded not guilty to two tax charges Friday at the federal courthouse in New Orleans.
Taffaro was accompanied by his lawyer, former federal prosecutor Mike Magner, who has said that Taffaro intends to go to trial on the charges.
He entered his plea before U.S. Magistrate Judge Janis van Meerveld, who set a tentative trial date of Oct. 2.
Taffaro, 70, is charged with tax evasion and with filing a false tax return; both charges relate to the 2009 calendar year.
Sources familiar with the case have told The Advocate that when the government filed the charges last week, the alleged violations were getting ready to prescribe, or expire, because the statute of limitations was approaching. More charges related to later tax years could still be in the offing.
The indictment does not say how much of his tax liability the government believes Taffaro avoided. It says only that he gave a tax preparer "false and incomplete information," including "exaggerated" business expenses.
But sources with knowledge of the case said the amount Taffaro is accused of failing to pay for the 2009 tax year is less than $5,000.
Magner has blasted prosecutors' decision to charge his client, saying the matter should be at most a “civil tax dispute.” At Friday's arraignment, Magner referred to the allegations as "relatively minor tax charges" in requesting the judge to lower Taffaro's already modest bail, a request she denied.
The expenses Taffaro is accused of exaggerating are associated with a business Taffaro and Normand formed together shortly after Normand was elected sheriff in 2007. The two men each own a 50 percent share in the business, CTNN Enterprise LLC.
The business receives sales commissions on food and other items purchased by Harvey Gulf International Marine, a major oilfield-services firm run and partly owned by the politically active businessman Shane Guidry. The items are actually supplied by yet another firm, Pelican Marine.
Normand has reported income of between $25,000 and $100,000 from the business each year on his financial disclosure forms.
Normand — who on Tuesday announced his impending retirement — has said that he has always paid all of his taxes due on that income, and that while he was interviewed in connection with the case against Taffaro, he is not a target.
Sources close to the case have confirmed to The Advocate that it centers on Taffaro’s tax issues related to the business, which is not mentioned by name or even described in the indictment.
In addition to being a business partner of Normand’s, Taffaro is the father-in-law of Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser. Taffaro for a time managed a blind trust of Nungesser's assets that Nungesser set up when he became Plaquemines Parish president in 2006.
Nungesser during that time held a large stake in Pelican Marine, the company that now pays Taffaro and Normand their commissions. Pelican's current owners bought the firm in 2012.
Taffaro retired from the Sheriff’s Office in June as the federal tax case against him wrapped up.
The case has been assigned to U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman.