The owner of a landmark bar and restaurant on Portland’s waterfront will serve four months in jail and pay more than $1.3 million in restitution for failing to turn over most of her sales taxes to the state, and for not paying her personal and corporate Maine income taxes, over a period of seven years.
Cynthia Brown of Portland, who owns and operates J’s Oyster on Commercial Street, was sentenced Monday by Superior Court Justice Lance Walker to four years in prison with all but four months suspended, Maine Attorney General Janet Mills said in a statement Tuesday. Brown, 58, also was placed on three years probation.
Brown, who has an 11-year-old grandson, will begin serving her sentence, most likely at the Cumberland County Jail, in two weeks.
Mills said that Brown owed Maine Revenue Services, the state tax agency, more than $1.3 million in restitution, and has repaid more than $829,000 since pleading guilty in January 2017. Brown is required, under terms of her probation, to repay the remaining $473,000.
“Maine citizens trust business owners to pay over the sales tax charged to their customers to Maine Revenue Services and to pay personal and corporate taxes on the income that they earn,” said Mills, a Democratic candidate for governor. “My office will pursue individuals who abuse the trust placed in them to collect sales tax for the benefit of the people of the State of Maine. We also will strive to recover as much restitution as possible in order to make Maine taxpayers whole.”
Brown, beginning in March 2008, began failing to turn over most of the sales tax she collected from restaurant patrons to Maine Revenue Services. Mills said Brown “illegally kept” the remaining funds for her own personal and business use.
“Brown then underreported the restaurant’s taxable sales and sales taxes collected, which enabled Brown to steal over $800,000 in sales tax,” Mills said in the statement. “She also failed to pay personal and corporate income tax during this time period.”
Mills said the practice of not paying sales and income taxes to the state eventually ended in March 2015.
Brown’s attorney, Tom Hallett of Portland, said his client’s willingness and ability to repay restitution to the state earned her a reduced sentence. If she had gone to trial and lost her case, Brown might have received a longer sentence – potentially in the range of seven to 15 months.
“You always hope for no jail time, but we weren’t able to do that in this,” Hallett said Tuesday. “In all honesty, this was a fairly lenient sentence.”
Hallett said he remains hopeful that jail officials will grant Brown work release privileges. If that were to happen, Brown could work at her restaurant during most of the day, Hallett said. She won’t be eligible for work release until about one month into her sentence.
In a telephone interview Tuesday evening, Brown was asked if she had any regrets about what she did.
“Yes, one hundred percent. I was in a dark place,” she said. “It wasn’t done with intent. I let things go drastically for a while and this is where I ended up.”
During those years, Brown said she devoted much of her time to caring for her sick husband, Lester Brown, and not enough time attending to her business affairs. He died in 2013 after a battle with cancer.
“My husband’s death brought me out of my fog,” Brown said.
Brown took it upon herself to repay her debts, an effort she credits her employees for helping her accomplish.
“The business has been doing so well. I’ve been able to pay a lot of the money back,” Brown said.
J’s Oyster was established in 1977. Brown took over the business in 1989 after the death of her mother, Janice Noyes.
The case was investigated by the Maine Revenue Services’ Criminal Investigations Unit. Hallett, Brown’s attorney, said that the matter only involved violations affecting state taxes. The Internal Revenue Service was not involved, Hallett said.
Cynthia Brown, photographed Tuesday at J’s Oyster, will serve four months in jail for failure to pay state sales and income taxes. (Ben McCanna/Portland Press Herald)