Jan. 20—HARTFORD — A Glastonbury paving contractor who cheated the federal government out of more than $154,000 in taxes over five years was sentenced Wednesday to six months in federal prison — even though his lawyer says his medications make it impossible for him to be vaccinated against COVID-19.
Before imposing the sentence on George Lee, 51, the owner of American U.S.A. Paving, Judge Vanessa L. Bryant said, "Small business owners have ample opportunity to rob the public of their fair share" of tax payments.
"Hundreds of billions, if not trillions, of dollars are defrauded from the United States every year by people like the defendant who feel their families are special," the judge said during the sentencing hearing in U.S. District Court in Hartford.
DEFENDANT: George Lee, 51, of Glastonbury, owner of American U.S.A. Paving on Toll Gate Road
GUILTY PLEA: Filing a false tax return
SENTENCE: Six months in prison, one year of supervised release, $5,500 fine, and $100 "special assessment" to a victims' compensation fund. Lee has already paid restitution of $154,238 to the federal government.
In pleading for a sentence without immediate prison time, defense lawyer Ethan Levin-Epstein said Lee "suffers severe immunosuppressive diseases." One medication he takes to treat those conditions is incompatible with substances in the COVID-19 vaccines, the defense lawyer continued.
Lee "is not vaccinated. He cannot be vaccinated," Levin-Epstein said.
Lack of protection against COVID-19 is a particular concern for people who live in crowded places like prisons, where the disease spreads easily, especially amid the current disease wave dominated by the highly infectious omicron variant.
"A confinement for George Lee, with his medical condition, is not only dangerous but could be life threatening," the defense lawyer warned, adding later, "Frankly, he's terrified."
The judge gave Lee until March 30 to report to prison. Such "voluntary surrender" orders are common in federal cases involving non-violent crimes, but the 10-week delay is unusually long.
The judge said Lee and his lawyer can use the time to share medical records with the U.S. Bureau of Prisons so that it can plan for Lee's care while he is incarcerated. If circumstances change, she added, the defense lawyer can file a motion to further extend the surrender date.
After Lee is released from prison, he will be on "supervised release," which is similar to probation, for a year. The judge also imposed a $5,500 fine, the lowest recommended by federal sentencing guidelines.
The sentence includes a requirement that Lee pay $154,238 to the federal government to make up for the revenue it lost to his cheating, but he has already done so. Levin-Epstein said Lee paid the restitution as quickly as he could, liquidating one of his most valuable assets, a truck, to do so.
The prison sentence the judge imposed was below the level recommended by the sentencing guidelines, which call for 12 to 18 months behind bars for offenses like his, although they also give judges the option of splitting the sentence evenly between prison time and house arrest.
A 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision stripped the guidelines of binding authority, however, making them purely advisory.
Lee's tax cheating involved cashing all or part of some checks he received from customers, then failing to report the cashed portions to his tax preparer, resulting in underreporting of the gross receipts of his businesses by more than $588,000.
Prosecutor Christopher W. Schmeisser emphasized that Lee made "a repeated choice" not to deposit money into a bank account that his tax preparer would review.
Lee, a big man who suffers from orthopedic problems and Chron's Disease, a digestive tract inflammation, used a walker to get to and from the courtroom.
"I'm so ashamed and embarrassed that I've brought this upon myself and my family," he told the judge.
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