Madigan: Tax fraud among gas station operators is 'pervasive'
More than one-fourth of Illinois gas station operators have underreported the amount of fuel they sell to the public, allowing them to pocket millions of dollars in sales tax owed to the state.
Within the last 18 months, grand juries have indicted 14 Illinois gas station operators on charges of illegally withholding a portion of the sales taxes their customers paid at the pump.
But the indictments do not come close to reflecting the extent of the fraud, state officials say. Thus far, the Illinois Department of Revenue has identified 651 gas station operators who have allegedly cheated the state. Officials say they have recouped $54 million in back sales taxes, interest and penalties, most of it through quiet settlements or after violators came forward under the threat of greater penalties.
Illinois law prohibits the state from disclosing the names of the nonindicted operators, but the numbers reveal that 27 percent of the state's approximately 2,400 gas station operators had underreported their sales at some point during the last four years. That percentage could grow. Attorney General Lisa Madigan and Illinois Department of Revenue Director Brian Hamer say they are nowhere near finished cleaning up the "pervasive" abuse, with Hamer's office set to embark on a third wave of audits.
"I think it's certainly the case that the industry knows that we're on to the widespread cheating," Hamer said. The telltale sign? "We have noticed in many cases where gas stations have suddenly increased their monthly remittances to the Department of Revenue, in some cases in dramatic fashion."
Of the 14 indicted gas station operators, five have pleaded guilty either to tax fraud or failing to keep financial records. Some also have agreed to testify against two tax preparers, Naveed Ahmed, 40, a certified public accountant living in South Barrington, and his brother, Asif Waheed, 37, of Chicago, who are accused of assisting six station operators in attempting to evade $5 million in taxes. Madigan's office is prosecuting these cases.
"It's illegal and infuriating," Madigan said. "Gas is expensive enough. And if you're not going to give my taxes to the state, you should at least let me keep it."
Among the indicted are retail outlets advertising Shell, Mobil, Marathon and Citgo gasoline. But the big oil companies do not own the stations. They are owned by individuals, who sometimes lease the station to another business owner to operate. Either the landlord or the operator negotiates for the right to use the brand name.
Madigan, for instance, is prosecuting, Jameel Muzaffar, 48, who leased the Mobil station near Madigan's home and was accused of pocketing sales taxes from November 2007 to December 2008. Muzaffar, of Harwood Heights, fled the country a few weeks before his September 2010 arraignment, according to his attorney, Paul Vanni.
The three-year investigation began with tips from distributors, who also operated gas stations and couldn't fathom how their rivals were selling fuel so cheaply. As distributors, they would know roughly how much it cost each operator to buy the gas.
"There are gas wars where people lower the price to stimulate their business, but this lowering went on for months, years at a time," said William Fleischli, executive vice president of the Illinois Petroleum Marketers Association, which represents distributors. "And (some of my members) also did their own inquiries. I don't know what they did, but they were convinced there was cheating going on."
Here's how state investigators caught the fraud. Distributors, who truck the gas, track how many gallons they deliver to each station. State officials then calculated each station's estimated sales, based on publicly reported average gas prices for the area. They then compared those figures with the station operators' reported sales on their monthly sales tax returns.
Hamer said investigators often uncovered "very significant discrepancies." Madigan's spokeswoman, Natalie Bauer, said it would have been physically impossible for the gas stations' sales records to be truthful.
"According to the reports, these gas station operators claimed to have bought all of this gas through a distributor that ultimately they didn't sell," she said. "If that were true, the gas stations would be overflowing with gasoline. It would be flowing down the street."
Hamer believes the cheating has been going on for some time but peaked in 2008 when gas prices "went through the roof." Fleischli's theory is that the cheaters used the scam to boost their overall business. Lower prices would drive more traffic into a station's car wash or minimart, where sales of bottled water, for instance, provide higher profit margins than gasoline.
But in "many cases," Hamer said his auditors found operators stealing taxes on the sale of store items too.
More than 200 Department of Revenue employees, of the 1,500 who do tax administration work, have been involved in this effort, Hamer said. But the department does not have the resources to audit every station.
In the case of Waheed alone, the state has turned over 5,000 pages of evidence, said his attorney, Richard Manning.
"His defense is, 'I was a tax preparer. I put down the information that was provided to me. That's what I put down, the information came from gas station operators, who have all admitted they were understating their sales tax,'" Manning said. "Therefore, he's not culpable. The law says he is permitted to rely upon what information is provided to him."
The state alleges that Ahmed's accounting firm, Midwest Financial, was known among gas station operators for facilitating the fraud. Ahmed's attorney did not return a phone message seeking comment.
In some cases, the gas station operator provided incomplete information to Midwest Financial, and Waheed then fabricated sales numbers for them, according to the attorney general's March press release, announcing the indictments. A trial date has not been set.
To ease the pursuit and avoid drawn-out litigation, the state sent a letter to all gasoline retailers announcing a "voluntary disclosure compliance" program in fall 2009. Station operators had the chance to file amended returns and pay what they owed. But the program did not provide amnesty, meaning the station operators could still be prosecuted after confessing.
"It's fair to say a very small number came forward," Hamer said.
Revenue officials began knocking on doors, requesting books and records. Madigan's office, meanwhile, began selecting cases to prosecute.
Then last summer, in an effort to speed up collection of all kinds of taxes, Gov. Pat Quinn signed a law creating a tax amnesty program. If paid in full by Nov. 8, 2010, interest and penalties on any tax debt from mid-2002 to mid-2009 would be waived and cheats would be spared prosecution. The legislation also spelled out consequences for those who chose not to participate. If later caught cheating on taxes during the amnesty period, penalties and interest would be doubled.
Only then did stations operators begin to come forward in large numbers, Hamer said. And in January, another state law took effect that changed the way sales taxes on gasoline are collected. It's a more complicated method, but one that is more difficult for gas station operators to manipulate.
"Throughout the course of the whole project now, we occasionally receive checks in the mail from gas station operators, without any explanation, without any (tax) return in some cases," Hamer said.