NEWARK, N.J. -- Rapper Ja Rule was sentenced Monday to 28 months in prison for failing to pay Uncle Sam more than $1 million in back taxes, blaming a lack of financial savvy and bad advice for his troubles.
"I in no way attempted to deceive the government," the 35-year-old performer and movie actor, whose real name is Jeffrey Atkins, declared in federal court in Newark after apologizing to U.S. Magistrate Judge Patty Shwartz.
"I was a young man who made a lot of money," said Atkins. "I didn't actually know how to deal with these finances. I didn't have the best people guiding me. I made mistakes.
"Things fell on hard times for me (and) kind of spun out of control," he added as he addressed the court wearing a yellow prison jumpsuit, his wrists and ankles in shackles. He would have paid his taxes if he had the money, he said.
Atkins, of Saddle River, N.J., pleaded guilty in March to misdemeanor tax charges, admitting he failed to file tax returns for the years 2004 to 2008 during which he had gross income of $4.38 million
Under a plea deal, he was allowed to plead guilty to three of five tax counts. The remaining charges were dismissed Monday.
As part of his plea, Atkins promised to pay more than $1.1 million to the Internal Revenue Service.
Before a packed courtroom, Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph Mack said Atkins was "looking for a complete walk -- not one day of jail," for his offense and noted his own accountant had cautioned him that failing to file a tax return was a crime.
Insisting that the government was not looking to make an example of a celebrity but simply for the appropriate punishment, the prosecutor urged the judge to impose a three-year term to run concurrent with the two-year New York State prison sentence that Atkins began serving last month for attempted possession of a firearm.
But defense lawyer Stacey Richman argued her client could end up serving more than a year of federal time under that scenario if he was released early from state prison for good behavior.
The Queens-born rapper, who never completed high school, but married his high school sweetheart, "came from nowhere to achieve things beyond his wildest dreams," Richman told the judge. "He took the neighborhood on his back and tried to support everyone."
Atkins achieved the American Dream, then stumbled, but "did not seek to insult the government," Richman said, adding her client was not like actor Wesley Snipes, who thumbed his nose at the system by evading taxes.
She cited Atkins' charitable activities and his performances for U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq since his arrest in Manhattan in 2007 after police found a gun in his car.
Richman asked for a one-year concurrent sentence and one or two years of house arrest so he could return to his family and repay his IRS debt.
In rendering her sentence, Shwartz said Atkins was a talented and successful man, "blessed with creativity," who entertained troops in a dangerous arena, took his family obligations seriously, and had spearheaded a program that advocated education over incarceration. She added he had demonstrated sincere contrition and a willingness to make amends.
But she added, "Taxpayers do not have the luxury of deciding whether to comply with laws."
During 2004, 2005 and 2006, the years covered by the plea, Atkins had a gross income of $3.35 million from ASJA Inc., which received royalties on his music, and Rule Tours Inc., which ran his tours and live performances. He made another $1.3 million during 2007 and 2008, but never filed a return during those years.
"The privilege of living well in the United States carries certain responsibilities, including the filing of tax returns when required and paying the correct amount of tax," said Victor W. Lessoff, special agent in charge of the IRS' criminal investigation branch at the Newark Field Office.
"Those Americans who file accurate, honest and timely returns can be assured that the government will hold accountable those who don't."