Thompson staffer continues working while facing tax charges
JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson said Wednesday that his chief of staff, Lanier Avant, will continue working while facing tax-evasion charges.
Thompson, the only Democratic member of Mississippi’s congressional delegation, said Avant told him “the facts are not what were put in the statement” when the IRS announced the charges Tuesday.
“Once he has an opportunity to present his side, it will be understood,” Thompson told The Associated Press during an interview Wednesday in Jackson. “I’m going to give him an opportunity to present his facts to the proper tribunal, whatever it is, and we’ll see what happens.”
Prosecutors on Monday filed a five-count misdemeanor criminal charge against Avant in federal court in Alexandria, Virginia.
An IRS agent, Brian Convery, said in an affidavit that Avant wrongly claimed in May 2005 that he was exempt from federal income taxes and that none was withheld from his paycheck until the IRS ordered withholding to start in January 2013.
Avant has a Sept. 13 court appearance in Virginia. It was not immediately clear whether he has an attorney.
“In America, you’re innocent until proven guilty and just being charged doesn’t mean he’s guilty,” Thompson said.
The five counts charged cover 2009 through 2013, because there’s a six-year statute of limitations, meaning Avant can’t be charged for failing to pay taxes before 2009. From 2009 through 2013, Avant earned about $171,000 annually. Any married couple earning more than $20,600 a year or any single person earning more than $10,300 is legally required to file a federal income tax return.
Avant has been charged, not indicted. Such criminal charges sometimes precede a defendant waiving indictment and pleading guilty. Convery’s affidavit says that in a January 2015 interview that Avant “admitted to knowing that he was required to file tax returns and pay taxes on income earned.”
Avant faces up to five years in prison and $500,000 in fines if convicted.
Thompson’s 2nd Congressional District includes most of Mississippi’s capital city of Jackson. It stretches more than 200 miles along the Mississippi River, from the casinos of Tunica County through the soybean fields of the Delta region to woods of southwest Mississippi.
Avant worked for Thompson for three summers as an intern before graduating from Jackson State University in 2000. Thompson hired him full-time after he earned his degree, and worked his way up from communications director.
When Democrats were in the majority in the House, Avant served for a time as both Thompson’s personal chief of staff and the staff director of the Homeland Security Committee. He remained director of the minority staff when Republicans regained the majority.
Associated Press writer Jeff Amy contributed to this report. Follow Emily Wagster Pettus on Twitter: http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus .