Pro surfer faces jail for tax evasion
2000 world champ and Hawaii native Sunny Garcia pleads guilty in federal court
Former surfing world champion Sunny Garcia pleaded guilty in federal court yesterday for failing to report more than $417,000 in prize earnings in tax returns dating back to 1996.
Garcia, whose formal name is Vincent Sennen Garcia, faces up to three years in prison, $100,000 in fines and one year of supervised release, said Kenneth Hines, special agent in charge for the San Diego field office of the Internal Revenue Service.
Appearing in federal court in San Diego, the 36-year-old surfer told U.S. Magistrate Judge William McCurine Jr. that he intentionally failed to pay income taxes on $161,450 in cash and traveler's checks earned in surf contests in Fiji, Australia, South Africa, France, Spain, Portugal and Brazil. Garcia also admitted that from 1996 to 1999 and in 2001, he did not report another $255,635 in prizes.
His sentencing is scheduled for Aug. 28.
Garcia, who won his only world title in 2000, is also a six-time winner of surfing's Triple Crown championship, the sport's most prestigious series of events that happen every year on the North Shore.
He pulled in more than $1 million in prize money since joining the professional tour at the age of 16 in 1986. In 2003, Garcia also appeared in "Boarding House: North Shore," displaying his tough-surfer image while sharing a house with six other professional surfers in the Warner Bros. reality TV show.
Garcia retired from the Association of Surfing Professionals in December, when he surfed his last heat at the legendary Pipeline.
Despite having heard rumors about Garcia's tax problems, friends and contest directors said they were shocked to learn about the possibility of jail time for someone who they say endured a tough childhood in Waianae to become one of Hawaii's most successful competitors.
"Wow! That's crazy," said Tony Moniz, who competed professionally in the 1980s, when Garcia was an up-and-coming star. "I heard that he was in trouble with the IRS."
Faith Wenzl, an administrator for the professional surfing association in Hawaii for the past eight years, said Garcia had told her that he was having his tax documents audited for "several years in a row."
"I just thought that OK, because he is audited every year, he discloses everything," she said. "I was surprised that he did do tax evasion."
Garcia still planned to compete in World Qualifying Series events as well as in Hawaii at the end of the year, according to Wenzl.
Garcia could have his three-year prison term reduced for being honest about the crimes and cooperative with federal agents, Hines said.
Hines declined to say how or when agents began investigating Garcia, but noted that the probe covers the years 1996 through 2001.
He said investigations are often started after agents receive tips from the public or when the tax department notices something wrong with a person's tax filings. Thousands of people violate tax laws each year by underreporting earnings, Hines said, noting that the offense is serious because it hurts everyone from government to taxpayers.
"For every dollar that someone doesn't pay, someone else has to make up for it," he said.
Moniz, who has retired from competition and now owns the surf company Faith, said Garcia had been complaining about an accountant who was controlling his finances.
"It's unfortunate that he is in that situation," Moniz said. "I just hope he gets out of it. After all those years doing what he did for the sport, it's really unfortunate for him to be there."