Hawaii surfer Garcia apologizes for tax lapse
A U.S. judge orders the retired champion to serve three months
Raised in a poor neighborhood, Sunny Garcia escaped to the surf off Maili Beach to endure a tough childhood and become one of Hawaii's most successful professional surfers.
But yesterday, the former world champion from Waianae was sentenced to three months in prison and seven months' home confinement for tax evasion. Friends of Garcia say the offense was accidental -- the unfortunate consequence of a poor yet talented kid's rapid rise to fame and wealth.
Appearing in San Diego Federal Court, Garcia apologized for failing to report more than $417,000 in prize earnings in tax filings dating back to 1996. The 36-year-old surfer explained that his sudden access to money from contests, or more than $1 million since he joined the professional tour at age 16, was overwhelming, making it hard for him to stay on top of his finances.
"I didn't surf because I thought I was going to make money at it," Garcia said. "But coming from a poor family, you want to buy everything you never had. I spent my money foolishly."
Garcia, whose formal name is Vincent Sennen Garcia, was ordered by U.S. District Judge Thomas Whelan to begin his sentence no later than Jan. 12.
Garcia retired from the Association of Surfing Professionals in December but said he would keep competing in the Triple Crown.
Contest director Randy Rarick said he hopes Garcia, a six-time Triple Crown champion, will be able to participate in this year's events, which run from Nov. 12 to Dec. 20.
"Pro surfing went from a $50,000 industry to a $5 billion industry. I know a couple of surfers who own four homes now because they have been advised wisely," Rarick said. "But Sunny didn't have that."
In June, Garcia acknowledged 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. He also admitted that from 1996 to 1999 and in 2001, he did not report another $255,635 in prizes.
Doug Silva, 38, a former professional surfer from California now living in Hawaii, agreed that as prize winnings continue to grow with the sport's popularity, athletes need to pay close attention to their taxes.
"I can sympathize with him," Silva, who retired in the 1999-2000 year, said of Garcia. "If you don't stay on top of it, it can get messy and you can get caught."
Assistant U.S. Attorney William Cole said Garcia will serve one year of supervised released and perform 80 hours of community service, helping troubled youths.
Garcia's attorney, Steven Toscher, said his client could eventually perform community service at a local surf school in Huntington Beach, Calif. Toscher also was pleased that Garcia escaped the maximum three-year prison term carried by the charges.
"Sunny Garcia is not your typical criminal tax defendant," Toscher wrote to the court. "As a successful professional surfer at a very young age, he started earning significant money with no meaningful financial guidance."
Oahu resident Eddie Rothman, who sponsors Garcia as co-owner of the surf brand Da Hui, said the company would not cancel the contract, calling Garcia a "super-competitive, cool and nice guy."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.