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Pardoning a first baseman's tax error

A Hall-of-Fame first baseman has received a pardon from President Obama for making a grave tax error.

The error was committed by Willie McCovey, an elite homerun hitter who played for the San Francisco Giants in for 18 years.

More than 20 years ago, McCovey failed to report income from appearances at baseball card and memorabilia shows. The amount of income involved from autograph and memorabilia sales was about $70,000, earned from 1988 to 1990.

Authorities charged McCovey with willful failure to file a federal income return. He pleaded guilty in 1995.

Another high-profile retired player, Duke Snider of Brooklyn Dodgers fame, pleaded guilty to similar charges that same year.

McCovey was sentenced to spend two years on probation and ordered to pay a fine of $5,000.

This week, President Obama pardoned McCovey. Duke Snider was also pardoned by the president this year.

Snider's pardon came posthumously; he died in 2011. McCovey has had serious health issues in recent years, but is still living.

These cases are a reminder that when tax authorities believe errors are willful, the consequences can include criminal prosecution. To be sure, there are many errors that are not willful. But if the IRS has evidence that you were trying to evade your tax obligations, the hammer can come down - even on a Hall of Fame baseball player.

How is "willfulness" defined, exactly, when it comes to tax evasion charges? It can include not only conscious deception, but failure to become fully informed about filing requirements. We'll discuss this further in upcoming post.

For McCovery and Snider, failure to file was originally ruled to be a willful error. But the president has now stepped as the official scorer to change that ruling.

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