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Dennis Myers: Journalists love a glitzy celebrity scandal

Last week, a national college admissions scandal erupted, with two Nevada business executives – Gamal Abdelaziz and Elisabeth Kimmel – in supporting roles. The starring roles went to actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman.

My profession loves stories like this – multiple celebrity scandals. There was a huge investment scam in the 1980s – lots of movie stars. But in that case, the celebrities were victims.

In the new college scandal, the celebs are cast as villains, though I think it’s chancy for prosecutors to take the actresses to trial instead of plea bargaining. It’s not easy to get juries to convict celebrities, and in this case, the alleged violation – trying to get their children into college – is a pretty sympathetic “crime.”

Still, it’s a scandal that tells us a lot about our society these days, which is something these cases often do.

Here’s another example. Some states have laws providing for sales to be made and the goods shipped to the purchaser’s home state. No sales tax is charged in the state of purchase and the purchaser is expected to pay the tax in the home state, though it often is not.

In the early 1980s, the New York jewelry store Bulgari was running a scam with some of its more prominent customers. The celebs would buy jewelry and pretend to have it mailed out of state.

The store cooperated in the scheme, packaging and mailing empty boxes to whatever addresses the purchasers provided. The purchasers kept the goods in New York.

Among those who took part in the tax dodge were Frank Sinatra, Henry Kissinger, Mary Tyler Moore, Adnan Khashoggi, and Donald Trump. The state lost around $1.5 million in taxes.

When the Democratic state attorney general, Robert Abrams, found out what was going on, he and state tax officials tried to process the matter while protecting the identities of the participants.

That came to an end when the alternative weekly Village Voice broke the story.

But Abrams was not finished pampering the schemers. He brought charges only against the store co-owner, a store manager, and the parent corporation, Danaos Ltd. Everyone else walked.

Trump was let off after he agreed to testify on the scam to avoid prosecution. He had avoided about $5,000 in sales taxes, which made it a felony. He purchased a $50,000 necklace and, on another day, $15,000 in jewelry items. Empty boxes were mailed out of state for him by the store, one to his lawyer’s Connecticut home.

If Abrams had done his job and Trump had been convicted, he would have lost his New Jersey casino license and his seldom-used right to vote.

An angry New York City mayor, Edward Koch, said the celebrities should have been prosecuted and jailed. No one was ever jailed.

Dennis Myers is an award-winning journalist who has reported on Nevada’s capital, government and politics for several decades. He has also served as Nevada’s chief deputy secretary of state.

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