Immigrant advocate Elias Bermudez has been a controversial figure in Arizona and other states for a long time. He's been accused of offering legal services he wasn't qualified to provide.
Bermudez, who lives in Tucson, is now facing a new legal problem: He's been charged with scamming the IRS and immigrants by preparing fraudulent tax documents that enabled people to get tax credits they didn't deserve.
From 2010 to 2012, Bermudez prepared at least 27 tax forms for immigrants that claimed child tax credits his clients didn't deserve, according to a newly unsealed federal indictment.
"Specifically, Bermudez added a false number of dependents to his clients' returns in order to maximize refundable credits under the Additional Child Tax Credit," the October 3 indictment says.
The credits offered by the IRS are worth up to $1,000 per qualifying child. But the kids must be U.S. citizens or legal immigrants, have lived with the taxpayer for at least six months, and have received at least half of their support from the taxpayer.
The 27 clients of Bermudez's, who are listed in the indictment only by their initials, followed his advice to list family members who hadn't received financial support from the clients, including children who lived in Mexico or other people's children.
The indictment implies that many of the clients didn't know what they were doing was wrong. "Bermudez did not explain to his clients the qualifications that were necessary to be eligible for the Additional Child Tax Credit," the indictment states. "Rather, he informed his clients that listing dependents on their tax return would reduce tax liability and perhaps even provide a tax refund."
The immigrants received tax credits ranging from $1,365 to $8,458. The immigrants will likely have to pay back the amounts they received, according to the IRS.
"Taxpayers are ultimately responsible for the information on their return whether they prepare their own return or hire a paid return preparer," said Brian Watson, special agent and spokesman for the IRS' criminal investigation division, which is handling the case.
Having prepared tax returns for more than 20 years, Bermudez should have known better, according to the government.
Besides his previous legal help to immigrants, Bermudez founded the migrant advocacy group Immigrants Without Borders and has at times been one of the leading activists in Arizona for undocumented residents. For example, an Arizona Republic article about the "Day Without Immigrants" protest in February quoted him.
Bermudez has a colorful past as a former illegal immigrant, convicted felon, and one-time gig as mayor of San Luis, Arizona, as covered in a 2007 feature article, "The Bermudez Triangle," in the Phoenix New Times by writer Megan Irwin.
Irwin's article exposed how critics of Bermudez accused him of using his status as an advocate to exploit immigrants for money. He helped those seeking legal status and citizenship to help file paperwork, but some clients claimed he ripped them off.
The ultimate purpose of donations to his nonprofit group was "murky," Irwin wrote. And Bermudez would sometimes get on the nerves of other immigrant activists for his often-unusual political stances and occasional friendship with Republican leaders, including former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
A judge granted the State Bar of Arizona's demand to put a halt to Bermudez's legal-help business and pay back clients he'd allegedly ripped off.
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Bermudez moved himself and his for-profit company, Centro Ayuda USA, to New Mexico for a time where, as a 2012 New Times article reported, that state's Attorney General accused him of "providing unauthorized immigration consulting services."
Those services included preparing applications for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. The business offered its services for "free" — but required donations as high as $500 to his nonprofit group Immigrants Without Borders.
The fresh indictment charges Bermudez with 27 counts of aiding and assisting in the preparation of false tax returns.
Bermudez didn't return several messages left for him on Friday, including on his Facebook page.