On April 7, California reclassified more than 100 large tax debts as uncollectible and removed the delinquents from its published list. Those taken off the new list: Warwick, Sinbad and Livingston, the immigration attorney.
In an effort to shame tax delinquents into paying, 15 states — California, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Maryland, New Jersey, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin — and the District of Columbia have started publishing the names of people the governments say owe large amounts of taxes. The inexpensive tactic has worked.
Wisconsin collected more than $8 million after sending letters warning delinquents that their names would be posted on the Internet. In Connecticut, 70% of the state's top 100 tax delinquents reached payment agreements after getting such a letter.
Individuals and companies that prize respectability respond swiftly.
JPMorgan Chase sent a $115,000 check to Wisconsin the day after USA TODAY called about an unpaid tax bill. The banking giant had a defunct partnership that Wisconsin said owed $5 million.
"We owe some taxes and penalties but not $5 million," bank spokeswoman Christine Holevas says. "This tax issue fell through the cracks, but we will work promptly to settle it." The partnership was removed from the state's list after the $115,000 check arrived.
Real estate developer Kent Hoggan of Stockton, Calif., says he amended his tax return Jan. 15 after appearing on California's list as owing $5.8 million in back taxes. "I've had losses that would eliminate this tax liability," he says.
Some tax delinquents say they have no way to pay what they owe.
Disbarred attorney Michael Bledsoe of Elk Grove Village, Ill., is his state's fifth-largest tax delinquent, owing $224,260.
He served time in prison for mishandling clients' money and tax evasion.
Now, he's trying to rebuild his life. After prison, he lived with his father and at a friend's house. He's trying to start a career in sales.
"I lost everything," he says. "How do I pay this?"
The size of tax debts on the published lists can be overstated — or plain wrong. Dinah White of Fort Atkinson, Wis., says she owes $300,000, not the $1.3 million the state claims. "Where they got that number, who knows?" she says.
Even innocent people have a hard time getting off the list:
Al Copeland, founder of the Popeyes fried chicken chain, was listed as Georgia's second-largest tax delinquent, owing $5.5 million. The giant accounting firm KPMG tried for more than a year to get Copeland off the delinquent list.
Copeland, a flamboyant New Orleans icon, died of cancer March 23. Georgia mistakenly thought the life-long Louisiana resident lived in Georgia during the 1990s, says Grant Coleman, his tax attorney.
After an inquiry from USA TODAY, the state reviewed the case, removed Copeland's name and canceled his tax liens.
Bruce McNall is the former owner of the Los Angeles Kings hockey team and a movie producer (Weekend at Bernie's). He pleaded guilty in 1994 to defrauding $236 million from banks.
The California Board of Equalization says he owes $7.3 million for unpaid sales tax on horses.