Tax trial begins for Castroneves

Updated: March 2, 2009, 5:37 PM ET
Associated Press

MIAMI -- On top of the world a few months ago, Brazilian race car driver and "Dancing with the Stars" champ Helio Castroneves faces possible prison time if convicted at a tax evasion trial that began Monday with selection of a jury.

An ethnically diverse panel of five men and seven women was chosen to hear the case, with attorneys' opening statements set for Tuesday.

Castroneves, a two-time winner of the Indianapolis 500, smiled broadly as he entered Miami's downtown federal courthouse. Prosecutors say Castroneves, his business-manager sister Katiucia and Michigan attorney Alan R. Miller conspired to hide about $5.5 million in income from the Internal Revenue Service using offshore accounts.

Castroneves claims he relied on experts to advise him on handling finances. He also says his father controlled a Panamanian entity called Seven Promotions at the heart of the prosecution's case.

Castroneves claims the money Seven Promotions received wasn't his tax liability because the income was for his father, who had financed and promoted his son's career for over 10 years.

Castroneves, his sister and Miller also deny acting "willfully" to evade taxes and that they took improper deductions.

Under federal sentencing guidelines, Castroneves, 33, could get more than six years in prison if convicted of conspiracy and tax evasion from 1999 to 2004. That would short-circuit a brilliant racing career that began in Sao Paulo, Brazil, where a youthful Castroneves broke into the sport by driving go-carts.

Before the trial, U.S. District Judge Donald Graham rejected defense efforts to introduce a large amount of racing memorabilia and numerous photos of Castroneves' rise from obscurity to the pinnacle of his sport.

"It seems to me that many of these exhibits are far afield of the issues in this case," Graham said.

During questioning of prospective jurors, many said they had watched Castroneves either in a race or on the TV dance competition, which he won in 2007.

"I watched him every week on 'Dancing With The Stars' and you feel like you know the person," a female member of the jury pool said. Asked by prosecutor Matt Axelrod if that would impact her ability to be impartial, the woman answered, "Probably."

A male prospective juror said he had called in to vote for Castroneves 12 times on the TV show. "I was a huge fan of his," the man said. Neither of the two were seated on the jury.

Defense questions focused mainly on whether jurors relied on professional expertise to file their taxes and whether they expected to pay the least amount possible under the law.

The trial is expected to take up to six weeks, and Castroneves has already been temporarily replaced on Team Penske by Australian driver Will Power for the Indy Racing League season that starts April 5 in St. Petersburg.

Two other prominent Latin American drivers -- Brazilian Tony Kanaan and Colombian Juan Pablo Montoya -- may testify on Castroneves' behalf, along with Miami philanthropist Adrienne Arsht.

Miller, a former professional football player turned attorney, has former Buffalo Bills quarterback and ex-U.S. House member Jack Kemp and racing mogul Roger Penske on his witness list.

The defense legal team also sports some big names: Miller is represented by Robert Bennett, who was President Bill Clinton's lawyer in the Paula Jones sexual harassment case; Roy Black, who represented radio host Rush Limbaugh in his prescription drug misuse case is there on behalf of Castroneves.

Castroneves, who lives in Coral Gables, won the Indy 500 in 2001 and 2002, then rocketed to even greater fame in 2007 by winning the television show dancing competition with partner Julianne Hough. Castroneves and his co-defendants were indicted Oct. 2.


Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press