Leslie Lara figures Tio Sam Taxes, owned by local Republican bigwig wannabe Erik Ketelaar, owes her about $1,267, the combined amount of her federal tax refunds for 2012 and 2013.
The company, which at one time had six locations in Phoenix and Mesa, heavily marketed its services to Hispanics, advertising on Univision and employing homeless people to dress as "Tio Sam" (Spanish for "Uncle Sam") and twirl signs on street corners.
Bilingual fliers for the business promised: "No charge until you receive your refund," which sounded good to Lara.
"They said they would take their fee when they received a check," she told me recently.
She showed me a copy of her 2013 tax return, which directed that her refund check be sent to a Tio Sam's location near 36th Street and Thomas Road in Phoenix.
The company instructed her to check back in about four weeks after the date on the return, April 2014.
At first, when she called, they told her they hadn't received her check yet. She gave it a couple of more weeks and started calling again.
One time, she says, she was told that the company had her check and that she could pick it up at a Tio Sam location on the west side.
But when she went on the date specified, the location was closed. She then traveled to what she thought was the main office, and it was closed, too.
When a woman finally answered the company's main line, she was of no help.
"She said, 'Oh, [the company's bank account] is frozen. There's nothing I can do,'" Lara explained.
Lara was one of about 25 people who gathered at a Methodist church in Phoenix recently to relate their Tio Sam stories to lawyers and representatives of the League of United Latin American Citizens.
Local LULAC officer Lydia Guzman told me that her organization intends to turn over the information the group gathered to federal law enforcement.
"We're going to make sure these people get their money and that they get justice," she told me.
Lara's plight was neither unique nor the worst of the bunch.
One woman, who did not want her name published, claimed that Tio Sam owes her at least $6,000, for two different years' tax returns of about $3,000 each.
She said she'd done a couple of years' worth of taxes at once, and the checks were directed to a Tio Sam's address. She showed me a letter from the IRS, which suggested that one check was mailed in care of Tio Sam.
But she never got it. Currently, she's unemployed and just underwent an operation for which she owes money.
She also has three kids, no husband, and recently had to pawn her car to a title loan company.
"I need the money," she said through an interpreter. "I'm in a hard situation."
Enrique, a cook at a Phoenix restaurant with a wife and two children to support, says he saw Tio Sam ads on Univision and did his taxes through the company. Once again, his refund check was supposed to go to Tio Sam.
He said a Tio Sam employee told him the company's account was "frozen" because it was "receiving too much money."
Enrique said he's complained to the IRS, the state Attorney General's Office, and the Better Business Bureau.
"I just want something to be done," he told me, "so, next year, these people won't be able to hurt anybody else."
Those who read this column regularly know I'm not exactly a "consumer reports" kind of guy, but these complaints and the volume of them intrigued me because I'd seen Tio Sam Taxes owner Erik Ketelaar before.
Ketelaar, a 31-year-old CPA, has appeared on TV advertising a business seminar on July 24 featuring none other than Sheriff Joe Arpaio, whom no one has ever mistaken for "Tio Sam."
Arpaio's picture also briefly appears on Ketelaar's cheesy commercial.
Stranger still, Ketelaar Accounting hosted an August 7 forum at the Scottsdale Plaza Resort for Republican gubernatorial candidates, moderated by KFYI 550 AM talk-radio personality Jim Sharpe.
Four candidates attended: Frank Riggs, Christine Jones, Ken Bennett, and Doug Ducey.
As I'd already spoken to some of Tio Sam's unhappy customers and since I've been following the GOP primary race for governor, I figured I'd attend and buttonhole Ketelaar.
The large room was packed with several hundred people, many of them Jones supporters.
Banners pimping Ketelaar Accounting flanked the dais, and Ketelaar, who sat next to Sharpe, got to ask some questions, like one about reducing red tape and lowering taxes, which almost all Republicans are in favor of in one form of or another.
Toward the end of the event, Sandra Tovar, whose daughter-in-law Stefany Felix says she is owed $3,089 by Tio Sam, jumped up and tried to shout a question at Ketelaar.
She wanted to know how Ketelaar could claim to be so successful and pay to promote and host this event when people like her daughter-in-law and others she knows are owed money by his company.
Because the event was ending and folks were leaving, most in the audience hardly noticed her, and she was escorted out of the room by security.
I approached Ketelaar and asked why Tio Sam was not paying people their refunds in a timely manner.
"Because we're having a problem with the IRS. That's really what it is," he told me.
What kind of problem?
"They don't want to send people their refunds," he claimed before his PR guy, George Lin, got between us and announced that the interview was over.
Ketelaar then walked behind a projection screen. After Lin stomped off, I followed Ketelaar, who clearly was skittish.
He claimed he wasn't hiding from me.
"Look, my goal is to help people out," he said. "I didn't ask for any money up front from anybody, and that's the truth."
I told him that I wanted to hear his side in detail. I gave him my card, and he promised on a handshake to call me the next morning.
Which did not happen.
Nor did Ketelaar or anyone at Ketelaar Accounting return my subsequent phone calls or e-mails.
I contacted a local spokesman for the IRS, who would neither confirm nor deny that the IRS was investigating Ketelaar.
However, I was referred to sections of the IRS website that explain how the practice of a tax preparer's accepting a client's refunds -- either via check or direct deposit so that fees can be deducted -- might be considered "disreputable conduct."
One CPA I've spoken with says there could be a legitimate reason for such a practice, but refunds usually are to be directed to the taxpayer.
Tovar has had a couple of run-ins with employees of Ketelaar Accounting while trying to get her daughter-in-law's refund.
She showed me a copy of a contract the Ketelaar folks wanted her to sign, agreeing to pay a portion of money owed her family member.
She said she and other complainants were offered $500 checks from the Ketelaar people during one meeting, as an advance.
Before leaving the meeting, she called the bank the checks were drawn on. She was told there was not enough money in the account to cover all the checks in question.
"What, do they think I'm stupid?" she said of the meeting. "This guy Ketelaar claims to be a millionaire on Facebook, but [his company] couldn't cover more than $1,000?"
Keep Phoenix New Times Free... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Phoenix with no paywalls.