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February 18, 2004

Former New Port Richey Auto Dealer Arrested in $150,000 Tax Fraud Case

New Port Richey - An investigation involving two state agencies led to the arrest Wednesday of a New Port Richey man charged with stealing $150,000 in sales tax, filing fraudulent tax returns, and illegally destroying business records in an attempt to cover up tax fraud, the Florida Departments of Revenue (DOR) and Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles (DHSMV) announced Wednesday.

Willis J. Pearce Sr., 64, of New Port Richey, was arrested Wednesday by Special Agent Scott Peterka of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement on a range of tax-related felony charges. If convicted, he faces up to 30 years in prison and up to $10,000 in fines, as well as repayment of stolen tax, penalty, interest, and investigative costs. Pearce formerly operated Wholesale Express, Inc., of Hudson. The business is now closed.

According to Revenue Department investigators, Pearce routinely collected tax from customers on sales of vehicles made through his business. Sales tax is the property of the state of Florida at the moment of collection, and must be sent in to the state as required by law. However, investigators charged, Pearce reported less business activity, fewer sales, and less tax collected on the business's tax returns than were actually taking place. Investigators charged that Pearce stole unreported sales tax and used it for business and personal expenses. After Revenue investigators began reviewing Pearce's business dealings, Pearce destroyed all of his business's records, a violation of state law, investigators charged. Pearce also shut down his business, transferring his activity to another auto dealer's business and continuing to steal sales tax collected from customers, investigators charged.

Even though the records had been destroyed, state investigators were able to reconstruct information about the business's affairs by matching information from DHSMV auto-title records and sales tax returns filed by Pearce. Investigators also interviewed former employees, business associates, and others and reviewed bank records. In all, Pearce is charged with stealing $150,307.35 in sales tax during various periods from January 2000 through October 2002.

"To be fair, tax law must apply uniformly to all businesses," said Jim Zingale, executive director of the Revenue Department. "Tax cheats steal money that the public pays to support vital public services, such as law enforcement and education. They also steal a competitive advantage over honest businesspeople who pay their taxes. The Department of Revenue cannot and will not allow this to occur."