Thursday, October 25, 2012

A Wake for Flanagans

Have you got a restaurant to sell? If you do, you may want to hear the story of John Psihos (JP) and Flanagan’s Restaurant.

JP was a Greek immigrant who came to the U.S. in his 20s. He did very well and eventually owned three restaurants in the north Chicago area: Flanagan's, Cafe Oceana and Full Moon. Flanagan's was the most successful. He seemed to be a good employer, willing to help his employees. He was also generous in his charitable pursuits.
The problem was that JP was keeping a double set of books on Flanagan’s. He used the second set to prepare his tax returns, a ruse undetected until he tried to sell the restaurant. JP listed the restaurant through a broker, providing a fact sheet showing his average monthly receipts at $170,000 and average yearly operating profit at approximately $554,000. These numbers were from the first set of books.

This caught the IRS’s attention.

The IRS dispatched two special agents who posed as husband and wife. They met three times with JP, who explained how he kept track of the actual receipts at Flanagan’s. Each night at closing the managers would assemble envelopes with all of the money, as well as receipts, register tapes and payout sheets. Standard stuff for a restaurant. JP then provided this material to one of his managers, who prepared weekly summaries. JP, feeling brave, provided these summary sheets to the two “buyers,” stating further that he had these records going back to 2001 showing what he “really got” from Flanagan’s.

The two agents executed a search warrant on one of JP’s restaurants, seizing, among other things, the weekly summary sheets. They also seized records detailing Flanagan’s nightly sales and cash payouts. The IRS reviewed these records to recalculate the actual gross receipts for years 2001 through 2004. They determined that JP had underreported his receipts by over $3 million over the four years. He was indicted on felony charges by a federal grand jury.

One has to give JP credit for the chutzpah he displayed before the District Court. He argued that he had left out all kinds of expenses, such as:
·        Amounts paid to DJ’s
·        Cash wages
·        Complimentary food and drinks
·        Payments to CafĂ© Oceana for food supplied
He even prepared a chart which he presented to the Court. According to his analysis, the actual loss to the government was approximately $22 thousand. He argued that the Court had to give him credit for the expenses he didn’t claim because, well, you know, he hadn’t wanted to double dip. He had a conscience, after all. The Court was having none of this and observed that the expenses were undocumented except for his word and that his word was not credible. The Court ordered him to pay more than $800 grand and go to jail for a couple of years
My Take: JP could not have this both ways. Once he decided to underreport his gross receipts to the IRS, he then had to consistently underreport for all purposes, including any sale listing. I am not making a moral call here, just observing how this works.
Once caught, there was little hope that anyone would believe him about unclaimed expenses. How credible was he at that moment? 
And why would someone go to all this effort if the end result was only $22 thousand?
What does it tell you that the IRS became aware of (a) the sale listing and (b) correlated it to gross receipts on Flanagan’s tax return? Remember: tax information is supposed to be confidential. Returns are not supposed to be laying around on someone’s desk or kitchen table. Are you telling me that someone “remembered” Flanagan’s gross receipts? Could it be that JP was already under scrutiny? The court decision does not give us background on this point, although it is this point that I find chilling. I can almost hear JP saying “how would they ever know?” I agree: how did they know?

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