- Associated Press - Tuesday, August 23, 2016

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - A top staffer for Mississippi’s only Democratic member of Congress faces charges of tax evasion.

Prosecutors filed a five-count misdemeanor criminal charge against I. Lanier Avant Monday in federal court in Alexandria, Virginia.

Avant is chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson. The congressman Tuesday told The Clarion-Ledger (https://on.thec-l.com/2bkEHVH ) that he intended to ask Avant about the allegations and said the staffer has not been fired.

“He’s charged and if he’s proven to be guilty then obviously that would be the result, but I’m not going to fire him now because he hasn’t had his day in court,” Thompson said.

IRS Special Agent Brian Convery said in an Aug. 12 affidavit that Avant wrongly claimed in May 2005 that he was exempt from federal income taxes and that none was withheld from his paycheck until the IRS ordered withholding to begin in January 2013.

The five counts charged cover 2009 through 2013, because there’s a six-year statute of limitations, meaning Avant can’t be charged for failing to pay taxes before 2009. From 2009 through 2013, Avant earned about $171,000 annually. Any married couple earning more than $20,600 a year or any single person earning more than 10,300 is legally required to file a federal income tax return.

Avant has been charged, not indicted. Such criminal charges sometimes precede a defendant waiving indictment and pleading guilty. Convery’s affidavit says that in a January 2015 interview that Avant “admitted to knowing that he was required to file tax returns and pay taxes on income earned.”

Avant is scheduled to appear in court on Sept. 13. He faces up to five years in prison and $500,000 in fines if convicted.

Thompson’s 2nd Congressional District includes most of Mississippi’s capital city of Jackson. It stretches more than 200 miles along the Mississippi River, from the casinos of Tunica County through the soybean fields of the Delta region to woods of southwest Mississippi.

Avant worked for Thompson for three summers as an intern before graduating from Jackson State University in 2000. Thompson hired him full-time after he earned his degree, and worked his way up from communications director.

When Democrats were in the majority in the House, Avant served for a time as both Thompson’s personal chief of staff and the staff director of the Homeland Security Committee. He remained director of the minority staff when Republicans regained the majority.

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