Irwin Schiff, a nationally-known income tax resister who operated from Las Vegas, died Saturday while imprisoned by the federal government. He was 87.
Schiff died in a hospital associated with a federal prison in Fort Worth, Texas. His death was caused by lung cancer, his son Andrew said.
Perhaps the most famous of self-styled tax experts who claimed the federal tax system is unconstitutional or otherwise unlawful, Schiff was imprisoned, at least partly, for expressing those views.
In October 2005 Kent Dawson, a U.S. District Court judge in Las Vegas, sentenced Schiff to 12 years and seven months in prison. Dawson called Schiff and his Las Vegas company, Freedom Books, “a flimflam operation” that encouraged others to engage in a fraudulent tax evasion scheme.
Dawson added another 11 months to Schiff’s prison term in 2008 for 15 contempt citations Schiff received while serving as his own lawyer during trial. A month later, Senior U.S. District Judge Lloyd George, also in Las Vegas, issued a permanent injunction barring Schiff and a co-defendant from preparing tax returns or marketing products advising people that no law requires Americans to pay federal income taxes.
Cynthia Neun, Schiff’s co-defendant, former business partner, and girlfriend, was sentenced to 68 months in prison in 2006. Now free, she lives in Henderson.
Schiff was the author of six books with titles such as “How Anyone Can Stop Paying Income Taxes,” and sold them and tapes on similar subjects from a storefront under a towering lighted sign on Sahara Avenue, where he also did tax consulting. He appeared on national television shows to advocate his anti-tax beliefs.
“I have been to Las Vegas many times and even the taxi drivers knew who he was,” said his son, Andrew, on Wednesday.
Irwin Schiff was born in 1928 in New Haven, Conn., the youngest of Jacob and Anna Schiff’s eight children. His father had emigrated in the 1890s from a place now part of Poland. Schiff’s ideas were shaped at the University of Connecticut by professors of the Austrian school of economics, who believed that government intervention in economies is ineffective or worse. “He was drafted during the Korean War but was sent to Europe instead because he had an economics degree, and they needed such people to manage the payroll, so badly that they took him before he even finished basic,” said Andrew.
“He claimed that made him the lowest-ranking U.S. personnel in Europe. But he also said he learned in the Army, never volunteer. Which was also applicable to dealing with the IRS, which claims to have a voluntary system of tax compliance.”
Besides writing books and fighting the federal government, the elder Schiff was a good amateur magician, dancer and singer, said Andrew.
Irwin Schiff lived in Las Vegas from about 1992 until he was sent to prison in 2005.
“He loved the free-wheeling attitude there,” Andrew continued. “He loved the fact Nevada had no income tax. He had a natural base of like-minded people there.”
“My dad was a true believer, a man driven by his beliefs. He knew what he was doing was dangerous. He thought he would win, but he knew he was risking a prison term,” said Andrew. “He was always overconfident in his ability to win in court. He was very well studied and knew the law backwards and forwards, and thought he would prevail. He defended himself in court and he wasn’t even a lawyer.”
Schiff cited multiple bases for his belief that the federal tax system is illegal. One argument was that Article I of the U.S. Constitution permits Congress to impose direct taxes only if they are apportioned according to the population of each state. While the 16th Amendment, ratified in 1913, grants Congress the power to collect income taxes “without apportionment,” Schiff maintained the Article I language, never repealed, remained the controlling law.
He also argued that the Constitution set the value of a dollar as a certain amount of gold or silver. Since U.S. currency is no longer backed by gold or silver, he reasoned, citizens no longer earn dollars. He therefore advised clients to report zero income on federal tax forms.
“He may have been right in the letter of the law,” said Vin Suprynowicz, a Libertarian columnist and novelist who formerly worked for the Review-Journal, where he followed Schiff’s battles for years. “Here is a man who was willing to go to trial and risk prison in order to get IRS agents on the stand under oath so he could cross-examine them on those questions, and the courts never allowed that to happen. … They said in effect ‘It is a given you owe these taxes.’ The courts acted as if it would be completely onerous to have the person, facing life in prison, face his accusers and make them show him the law.”
Schiff’s son Peter, himself a well-known author of books on economics, wrote on The Peter Schiff Show website, “His crusade to force the government to obey the law earned him three prison sentences, the final one being a fourteen-year sentence that he began serving ten years ago, at the age of 77. That sentence turned into a life sentence, as my father failed to survive until his planned 2017 release date. However in actuality the life sentence amounted to a death sentence. My father died from skin cancer that went undiagnosed and untreated while he was in federal custody. The skin cancer then led to a virulent outbreak of lung cancer that took his life just more than two months after his initial diagnosis.
“Whether or not you agree with my father’s views on the Federal Income Tax, or the manner by which it is collected, it’s hard to condone the way he was treated by our government.” The complete tribute can be read at http://linkis.com/www.schiffradio.com/TdGN9.
Lance Wilson, a spokesman for the U.S. District Court in Las Vegas, did not return a phone call requesting comment.
Neun, 62, who served five years in a prison camp near Phoenix and completed probation in 2013, said Schiff was never convinced that he was wrong. “For someone to stand so firmly on his cause is remarkable. He had me file a motion for reconsideration in September, so he was still fighting up till his dying breath.”
Schiff didn’t learn he had cancer until about July, she said, and by August was told he had no more than four to six months to live. “His sons Peter and Andy got to work immediately trying to get a compassionate release, but the federal system just took too long. It was only a couple of weeks ago the probation office in the city where Peter lives agreed to accept his case there. He passed away in federal custody.
“He wasn’t in the prison itself but a community hospital. They had him handcuffed to the bed and an armed guard outside the door. When they finally took him off life support, that was when they took the shackles off his leg.”
Neun has resumed her earlier career as an artist and painter, and taught those subjects in prison. “I am not regretful of going to prison,” she said. “I’m proud of Irwin and so are people all over the world.”
Schiff’s son Peter is CEO of Euro Pacific Capital, a brokerage firm, and lives in Weston, Conn. His other son, Andrew, is director of marketing for the same company, and lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. Peter is also well known as author of several books on economics, and Andrew was his co-author for one of them. Irwin Schiff’s marriage to Ellen Wachsman Schiff, who now lives in Boca Raton, Fla., ended in divorce in 1967.
Funeral services will be held at 11 a.m. Friday at Shure Funeral Home in New Haven, Conn.