The stage was set, the players in place in Wilmington’s federal courthouse for the long-awaited denouement in the Hunter Biden tax saga.
Prosecutors would detail the full scope of the “willful failure” by President Joe Biden’s son to pay his federal income taxes for 2017 and 2018.
The 53-year-old Biden would admit his misdemeanor offenses and put this chapter of his high-flying yet erratic life behind him.
But last week’s hearing went off the rails, with the judge raising dozens of questions about the plea deal’s appropriateness, enforceability, and clarity during a contentious three-hour session. The hearing ended with the judge deferring action in the case and Biden entering a “not guilty” plea.
However, overshadowed by the courtroom drama was the fact that, in open court, Biden repeatedly acknowledged blowing off significant income tax obligations while ignoring pleas by his accountant and other business associates to file his returns and pay up, even though he had the money.
The Yale-educated lawyer, businessman, and investor had an income of $4.4 million those two years and owed between $1.2 million and $1.6 million in income taxes to the Internal Revenue Service.
His exact tax bill for those two years remains uncertain, however, because the IRS is reviewing what Assistant U.S. Attorney Leo Wise called “improper” business deductions Biden claimed. Biden’s attorney, Christopher Clark, said his client made mistakes in identifying personal expenses as business expenses.
Biden also admitted to being delinquent on his tax obligations in 2016 and 2019, although prosecutors did not charge him for those offenses.
The parties also revealed in the plea agreement that an unidentified “third party” paid $2.6 million in October 2021 in an attempt to settle Biden’s tax debts, including penalties and interest, for 2016-2019. Biden told the judge the money was a loan, but he is “not currently” making payments.
Wise said Biden’s crimes were fueled in part by rampant alcohol and crack cocaine abuse during a time the defendant himself referred to as “nonstop debauchery.”
The bottom line, however, is that Biden admitted, time and time again, to breaking the law.
At one point, before she decided to hold off on taking the official plea, U.S. District Judge Maryellen Norieka asked Biden: “Are you pleading guilty of your own free will because you are, in fact, guilty?”
“Yes, your honor,’’ Biden replied.
Biden’s earnings came from several sources, including the prominent Washington, D.C., law firm Boies Schiller Flexner, outside legal work, his own businesses, Rosemont Seneca investment management firm, and Owasco holding company. He also earned money from Ukrainian energy giant Burisma, Chinese investment and energy companies, and an unidentified “Romanian” business.
Yet Biden spent most of the money on himself, his children, credit card bills, legal entanglements, travel, entertainment, and payments for his Porsche while he was, as Wise put it, “in the throes of addiction.”
‘I handled my affairs legally,’ Biden said of taxes in 2020
Prior to Wednesday’s hearing, all that had been disclosed publicly about the scope of Biden’s crimes was a two-page criminal “information” filed June 20 in U.S. District Court in Delaware. The document charged Biden with “willful failure” to pay more than $200,000 in taxes on income of more than $3 million for 2017 and 2018.
David Weiss, the U.S. attorney for Delaware who has overseen the five-year investigation, also filed a letter with the court clerk that day, writing that Biden has “agreed to plead guilty to both” tax charges.
The crime of willful failure to pay federal taxes is a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in prison and a $100,000 fine for each count, yet prosecutors agreed to recommend probation to the judge.
Weiss also wrote that his office would allow Biden to enter a diversion program on a felony charge of possessing a .38 Special handgun even though Biden was prohibited from owning a firearm because he used illicit drugs.
The probe began in 2018 but wasn’t disclosed publicly until Biden announced in December 2020 — a month after his father defeated incumbent Donald Trump in the presidential election — that Weiss was investigating his “tax affairs.’’
The younger Biden said then he took the probe “very seriously.” But even though he still had a massive unpaid tax debt for the previous four years, Biden said he was “confident that a professional and objective review of these matters will demonstrate that I handled my affairs legally and appropriately.”
Weiss, a veteran of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Delaware, has held the top spot since 2018 after being appointed by fellow Republican Trump and confirmed by the Senate.
Even though Biden lived in Washington, D.C., and then Los Angeles in 2017 and 2018, Weiss filed the charges in Delaware, where Biden grew up and where his father was U.S. senator for 36 years.
Biden was not charged with the more serious crime of tax evasion, a felony that carries a maximum penalty of five years behind bars. That crime requires someone to take affirmative steps to evade taxes such as falsifying financial records.
The decision to charge Biden with misdemeanor offenses has led many to question whether Weiss gave a “sweetheart deal” to the hometown guy whose dad is commander in chief.
Two IRS agents involved in the case have testified before Congress that they urged Weiss to file felony charges but were rebuffed. Republicans in Congress have charged that the Democratic president’s administration interfered in the investigation and have pledged to keep digging.
Weiss has publicly said that he worked without interference from the U.S. Department of Justice, and has agreed to testify before Congress about the case.
Two-year income of $4.4M while strung out on crack cocaine
While Hunter Biden predicted in 2020 that he would not face tax charges, a far different and more troubling tale unfolded last week in the J. Caleb Boggs Federal Building, named for the U.S. senator whom upstart politician Joe Biden defeated in 1972.
A few floors below where his father had maintained a U.S. Senate office, Biden sat quietly in the defendant’s chair, flanked by a team of attorneys while his misdeeds and chaotic lifestyle took center stage.
When Judge Norieka asked him on several occasions whether the government’s assertions were true, Biden responded, “Yes, your honor,’’ in a quiet voice.
On Noreika’s orders, Wise read and summarized from an exhibit to the plea agreement, describing “Robert Hunter Biden” as an “attorney and businessman with lucrative domestic and international business interests.”
In total, Biden was paid $2.3 million in 2017 and $2.1 million in 2018, Wise said.
Wise said Biden continued to be paid huge sums those years even though he had relapsed into substance abuse — a descent that began after his older brother Beau, Delaware’s former attorney general, died in May 2015.
By 2016, Biden had begun to abuse crack cocaine, the plea agreement said. That same year, he also began a nearly three-year affair with Beau’s widow Hallie Biden.
Biden’s addictions and lifestyle contributed to the collapse of his marriage and his divorce in 2017, as well as the disintegration of most of his business relationships.
“Virtually everything collapsed,” Biden told Noreika.
Biden also said he’d gone to inpatient treatment facilities “close to six times” from 2003 to 2018 but had been clean since June 1, 2019, shortly after he remarried. Yet when Noreika asked Biden if there were any particular drugs he abused, the defendant didn’t specify crack cocaine.
Instead, he muttered, “Everything, your honor.”
Biden ignored associates’ pleas to file returns, pay taxes
Despite his drug problems, which accelerated after he moved to the Los Angeles area in 2018, the money kept rolling in for Biden, Wise told the court.
He “successfully entered into business ventures and landed legal clients, earning millions of dollars,’’ and exercised control over his corporate and personal finances, Wise said.
But when it came to filing taxes for 2017 and 2018, Biden just didn’t do it.
Federal tax returns and any money owed to the government are due on April 15 for the previous year. But as he routinely did, Biden requested and was granted automatic extensions to file his forms by October 15, even though the money had to be paid by April 15.
Not that people close to Biden didn’t badger him to cover his obligations.
Wise said that in 2017, Biden had worked with an accountant to prepare his individual and corporate returns. But when it came time to get them signed and filed in 2018, and for Biden to pay the IRS, the accountant hit a brick wall.
Wise said the unidentified accountant, who died in 2019, contacted Biden and Biden’s clerical aide, and even sent copies to his business partner Eric Schwerin.
Schwerin reviewed the returns and sent his partner several emails “in which he commented on their substance and reminded Biden of his filing obligations,’’ and even dropped them off at Biden’s office, Wise said.
But Biden didn’t sign or submit the tax returns.
In one April 2018 exchange, the accountant urged Biden to pay the IRS about “$600,000 owed by Biden personally and an additional $204,000 owed by Owasco,’’ Wise said.
Biden told the accountant he could pay $25,000, Wise said.
Wise told the court that despite Biden’s “large outstanding tax liability and profligate spending,” he had the cash to pay the tax bill for 2017. The prosecutor cited a $1 million payment for legal fees Biden had received one month before that money was due.
Over the next six months, Wise said Biden spent almost all the money on “personal expenses, including large cash withdrawals, transfers to his personal account, travel, and entertainment.”
But when it came to settling up with Uncle Sam, Biden didn’t pay one cent.
‘Substantial income and the ability to pay his tax liability’
In April 2019, when his 2018 taxes were due, Biden traded emails with his accountant and attorney about again getting a filing extension, which he received.
The accountant advised him to “make a payment,” Wise said, but as he had the previous year, Biden “paid nothing.”
Once again, though, Biden had “substantial income and the ability to pay his tax liability,’’ Wise said. That included income of $758,000 in March and April 2019, which Biden spent on himself, his children, credit card bills, and car payments.
May 2019 marked a turning point for Biden, however. He remarried, stopped drinking and taking drugs, and remained in California, “painting and developing plans for his memoir,” Wise said. The book, “Beautiful Things: A Memoir’’ was published in 2021.
Yet the budding artist and author didn’t make plans to file the 2018 tax returns by their due date in October 2019.
The judge quizzed Biden on his state of mind when he made that decision.
“And you were sober at the time?’’ Noreika asked.
After he said yes, she pressed further.
“But you didn’t file your taxes?”
“In putting my life back together,’’ Biden answered, “it was a flood, an enormous amount of problems and by the time I was able to find someone to be able to help me, I was already past the deadline in which I should not have gone past.”
A ‘third party’ loaned Biden $2.6M to settle four years of tax debts
In November 2019, a month after his extended filing deadline for 2018, Biden hired a California accountant to begin ‘gathering materials’ to prepare his 2017 and 2018 tax returns.
Wise said that happened partly because Biden was under the gun in another legal matter.
At the time, he faced two lawsuits seeking child support payments and was “under court order to provide his tax returns or face potential sanctions including imprisonment,’’ Wise said.
Finally, in February 2020, Biden belatedly filed his tax returns for 2017 and 2018, but paid nothing toward the $1.2 million outstanding balance. The IRS had previously withheld $164,000 from his paychecks for those years.
In October 2021 — 20 months after he finally filed his forms — Biden’s lender paid $1.9 million for the overdue taxes, penalties, and interest for 2017 and 2018.
That didn’t end Biden’s tax difficulties, however.
The accountant also learned that Biden had not filed his 2016 return, which had its own problems.
That paperwork had been prepared in October 2017 and claimed Biden only had an outstanding tax obligation of $15,520. Yet he had not filed the documents or paid the money.
The revised 2016 return, filed in June 2020, showed he was paid $1.6 million but still owed $45,600 from a tax bill of $493,000.
For 2019, during which he had an income of $1.05 million, Biden received a filing extension until October 2020, and filed the return on time.
Biden didn’t send a check with either the 2016 or 2019 returns, however.
The lender covered those debts too, however, also in October 2021. By that time the amount owed for those years had ballooned, with penalties and interest, to $689,000.
Although Biden told the judge he is not making payments on the loan, he called the agreement “a normal typical loan with terms and a time frame.”
The defendant didn’t elaborate and the judge didn’t press him further about the private transaction that aimed to finally square him financially with the government his father now presides over.
Yet Noreika took great pains to ensure that Biden did not dispute the account of his crimes, as detailed by Wise and spelled out in the plea agreement.
“All right, Mr. Biden,’’ she said. “Is there anything you wish to challenge or amend in the government’s recitation of proof?”
“No, your honor,’’ the president’s son replied.
“Do you disagree with any of the government’s factual recitations?”
“No, your honor.”
Get daily updates from WHYY News!