People flocked to John H. Livingston's tax consulting office when they heard he had found a way to beat the Internal Revenue Service and get huge tax refunds for his customers.
They smiled when Livingston helped them get thousands of dollars back from the IRS.
But the smiles melted away last week when Livingston, 52, was convicted of 56 fraud charges. His customers learned that they will have to repay the money they received on bogus refunds, plus interest.
Dozens -- and possibly hundreds -- of taxpayers who used Livingston's Rochester tax service are going to owe the IRS anywhere from a few hundred dollars to more than $20,000 each, prosecutors said.
Livingston's scam involved filing returns for his clients that falsely listed large noncash donations to charities, mostly the Open Door Mission, a Rochester homeless shelter.
"Whether you fill out your own returns or you hire a tax preparer, each taxpayer is ultimately responsible for information on his own return," said Laurie Ruffino, spokesman for the IRS Buffalo district.
"The simple rule of thumb is, when a tax preparer tells you he can get you refunds that nobody else can get, a big red flag should go up."
Several dishonest Western New York tax preparers have been convicted, including a Buffalo man jailed in 1995 for filing tax returns in the names of dead people and keeping the refunds for himself.
These horror stories are important to remember over the next two weeks, Ruffino said, as many Western New Yorkers will be hiring professionals to do their tax returns before the April 15 deadline.
"We believe the vast majority of (tax professionals) are honest, knowledgeable about tax laws and trying to do a good job for their clients," Ruffino said. "But some aren't.
"It is not acceptable for a taxpayer to say, 'I didn't read my return. I just trusted my tax preparer.' You have to read your return, and if you have questions, don't sign it until the questions are answered."
Tax preparers should also be concerned, because the IRS occasionally sends undercover agents out to tax preparers' offices, masquerading as shifty citizens who want help cheating on taxes, Ruffino added.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Resnick noted that Livingston is not a certified public accountant. He is a former Eastman Kodak employee who started working as a tax consultant after being laid off in 1995.
Livingston had some friends working at the Xerox Corp. plant in Rochester, and he put the word out at Xerox that he had found a few secrets to help people get big tax returns. As more and more of his customers got big returns, at least 300 people flocked to Livingston with their business.
"He would charge people $250 to $300 a return, which is a very high price, and in some cases, he would have people pay him 10 percent of their refund, which is very unusual," Resnick said. "He was telling people he had learned some little tricks to help them increase their refunds, like (improperly) declaring their union dues or getting a refund for special shoes they had to buy for work."
The real secret to Livingston's formula, however, was making false claims that taxpayers had donated food, clothing and other items worth anywhere from $2,000 to $5,000 to charities. Almost all the donations were listed to the Open Door Mission, Resnick said.
Tax returns filed by clients claimed a total of $1.6 million in noncash donations to the mission. The minister who runs the mission testified at Livingston's trial that the mission never received anywhere close to that amount.
"His customers said he quickly would show them the return, telling them, 'This is where you sign, and this is how much of a return you will get back,' " Resnick said. "These people were happy with the size of the returns, and they trusted Mr. Livingston. They were unsophisticated taxpayers. We consider them to be victims."
Mark D. Hosken, a federal public defender who represented Livingston, questions the innocence of his client's customers.
"Mr. Livingston testified, and he still maintains, that he went over all these returns with all his clients and that he did tell them about the donations," Hosken said. "He also maintains he spent up to two hours going over the returns with some of these clients."
Although they were not prosecuted criminally, those taxpayers who had bogus returns filed for them by Livingston are still on the hook with the IRS. They will have to pay back the money they should not have received, plus interest.
"One man testified that he has to pay the IRS more than $20,000," Resnick said.
Livingston, meanwhile, is looking at a prison term in the range of four to five years.