3 religious sect members on trial over refusal to pay taxes

CAMDEN - A federal tax evasion trial began Monday for three members of a small Atlantic County religious group, who say they don't comply with federal tax regulations because their payments would pay for war.

The defendants include two partners in the McKee Donato Construction Co. and the wife of one of them, who worked as the firm's part-time secretary.

The defendants - Kevin McKee, 47, of Egg Harbor; Joseph Donato, 46, of Mays Landing; and his wife, Inge Donato, 44 - face 21 criminal charges for failing to pay their own personal income taxes and failing to withhold and send to the federal government withholding taxes of 10 employees, authorities said. The trial is being conducted before U.S. District Judge Jerome B. Simandle.

The indictment covers the tax years 1996 through 2000, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Mike Vasiliadis. It represents a total loss of tax funds to the Internal Revenue Service of $262,000.

Some of the construction company's employees did have taxes withheld to cover income tax and Social Security and Medicare payments, but most did not, Vasiliadis said.

The government's witnesses will include two employees who complied with federal tax requirements and a former member of the religious group, The Restored Israel of Yahweh, who reported the tax violations to the IRS, Vasiliadis said.

The company did carpentry work, mostly on beach and other vacation homes in the Longport and Margate area. It also served as subcontractors.

The religious organization was founded in the late 1970s by Leo Volpe, who had been prosecuted in 1944 for refusing to sign up for the draft and convicted in the 1980s of tax evasion charges.

"This case isn't about trying to get over on anybody or get rich quick," said federal public defender Christopher O'Malley, who represents Joseph Donato.

"This is not a religious defense, but a good faith defense," added Troy Archie, the attorney for Inge Donato, who said his client will admit that she did not pay taxes over the four years covered by the indictment.

McKee, who is representing himself with Rocco Cipparone as court-appointed stand-by counsel, told jurors he hopes to "bring out evidence of why we don't pay taxes to support the military and warfare."

"We are God-fearing men and women," he said. "No one can tell a man what is right or wrong regarding his conscience."

He said the U.S. Attorney's Office is attempting to make him and members of the organization "look like a cult, living in a compound."

"The most important thing in our lives is to do what's right, not cheat anyone," McKee said. "We're facing jail. I don't want to go to jail but I won't back down. The law that we're obeying goes much higher (than tax laws) . . . The only gratification we will get out of our stand is in heaven."