Craig Taffaro

Craig Taffaro

Craig Taffaro’s nearly five-decade career in local law enforcement ended in disgrace Monday as a jury convicted the former chief deputy for the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office on 12 federal tax charges.

Taffaro, 70, was found guilty on all counts after a trial in which prosecutors presented evidence that he inflated his expenses for a side business he co-owns with former Sheriff Newell Normand. The jury deliberated for more than six hours.

The longtime lawman faces a maximum of five years in prison on six counts of tax evasion, five counts of filing a false tax return and one count of failing to file a tax return. He was convicted of dodging his taxes every year from 2009 to 2014.

U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman set sentencing for April 4.

Taffaro's attorney vowed to appeal.

The five-day trial in federal court exposed an upper-echelon world of Jefferson Parish politics where money and power mixed easily. Taffaro's partnership with Normand, named CTNN, operated as a broker between the grocery supplier Pelican Marine, which was once co-owned by Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser, and Harvey Gulf, an offshore oil services company led by politically active businessman Shane Guidry. Nungesser is Taffaro's son-in-law.

For every sale of turkey wings from Pelican Marine to Harvey Gulf, Normand and Taffaro’s business took a roughly 10 percent cut. Each man hauled in about $57,000 a year each from the side gig, but prosecutors said Taffaro failed to pay taxes on much of that money.

“The defendant got an amazing deal,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Chandra Menon said in his closing statement. “But that wasn’t enough. He had to cheat on his taxes, too.”

Prosecutors said Taffaro claimed wildly inflated amounts of mileage for his side business plus a payment to his wife as a consulting fee and tried to have the Sheriff’s Office reimburse him for a plane flight he took that was paid for by Guidry.

They also hinted that the tax evasion may have been motivated by heavy losses at casinos. Bank records showed that Taffaro withdrew $297,000 in cash at casinos between 2009 and 2014.

Meanwhile, defense attorney Michael Magner framed the entire trial as a classic case of government overreach. He said in his closing argument that agents from the FBI and the Internal Revenue Service were trying to ensnare Normand or Nungesser but wound up settling for Taffaro instead.

“If your government can do that to this man, what can they do to you?” said Magner, a former federal prosecutor. “If the government has the power to put 10 to 12 agents with a microscope on this man and abuse its power, what do we have left? What has this country come to?”

Taffaro himself took the stand on Thursday in an effort to convince the jury that the problems with his tax returns were the result of honest mistakes that might have been the fault of his longtime accountant, Pat Sharp.

Taffaro said that since his July 2017 indictment, he had reviewed his tax returns more carefully, but could not understand them.

“Since this case has gone, I’ve read my tax returns, and I can’t make hide nor hair of it,” he said.

Taffaro also testified about one of the mysteries that loomed over the case since it began: Normand’s role in the entire enterprise. He said that when he went to Normand asking for permission to start an outside business in 2008, the sheriff asked for a share of the action.

“He said he wouldn’t mind something like that,” Taffaro said. “But it didn’t bother me.”

Both men were paid equally under the terms of the partnership. Taffaro estimated that he did 90 percent of the work. Normand said in testimony Jan. 22 that Taffaro did closer to 60 percent of the work.

But how much work there was to do came into question. An IRS agent called by the government cast doubt on the entire arrangement. He said in a report that the two men had arranged a “no-work” contract with Harvey Gulf and Pelican Marine.

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

Magner also called character witnesses like G.W. Bailey to the stand. Bailey, an actor who played Staff Sgt. Luther Rizzo in “M*A*S*H” and Capt. Thaddeus Harris in the "Police Academy" series, said Taffaro was a top fundraiser for the Sunshine Kids, a charity for children with terminal cancer.

In a statement released after the verdict, Magner vowed to appeal.

“The Taffaro family and I are very disappointed in the jury’s verdict and we plan an appeal,” Magner said. “We are particularly disappointed that the jury apparently did not credit the fact that virtually every witness — government and defense — testified as to Craig’s exemplary character — his military service, 49 years in law enforcement, extensive charitable work, and his reputation for truthfulness and honesty. It’s always tough fighting the federal government, but we thought that we presented a compelling case of innocence. We will fight on.”

Follow Matt Sledge on Twitter, @mgsledge.

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