by Gwen Moritz on Monday, Jun. 6, 2005 12:00 am
"My life is like a beautiful, multi-pane, stained glass window. ... There is no way to explain what a good person I am."
Thus wrote Keith Moser, the former Little Rock attorney who pleaded guilty to 13 counts in three unrelated federal investigations, in a six-page letter asking U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright to sentence him to the 13 months he had already served.
Wright, unmoved by Moser's letter or 75 other letters from friends and family begging for leniency, sentenced him last month to 188 months. He is appealing the sentence that would put him in prison for at least 12 more years, after deducting time served and the possibility of a reduction for good behavior.
The letters written on Moser's behalf describe a devoted son and involved father, "friend in need," a mentor, a philanthropist and an upstanding church member. Professional colleagues describe a gifted tax attorney of uncommon judgment and skill.
The letters stand in heartbreaking contrast to the rest of the public record of Moser's deeds: His admitted theft of almost $2 million entrusted to him by clients; his role in an extortion scheme that also sent a client and his son to prison; his bolt to Madagascar, where 10 days in jail were enough to persuade him to waive extradition.
This account of his dual life is taken almost exclusively from that public record.
'A Rising Star'
Bobby Keith Moser was born on Oct. 30, 1956, to Bobby Dean and Shelby Jean Lesan Moser. He was born in Batesville but was reared on a cattle farm about two miles from Mount Pleasant in Izard County.
Bobby Dean Moser, now retired, was president of M&M Construction Co., an earth-moving company that he owned with legendary former state Rep. John E. Miller of Melbourne.
Keith and his brother Kenny, younger by two and a half years, grew up feeding cattle before school and working in the construction business during the summers. Sundays and Wednesday evenings were devoted to Mount Pleasant Church of Christ, where Keith led the a cappella singing by the time he was 10 years old. As a teenager, he would preach when the regular preacher was out of town.
While Keith flirted with the idea of becoming a minister, his course of study never strayed from the goal he set in the sixth grade: to become a lawyer.
"Most people never knew how hard he worked for what he wanted,"? Kenny Moser wrote in a letter to Judge Wright. " ...I have been very proud of him for staying on that long hard road and obtaining his goal."
At Mount Pleasant High School, Keith Moser was one of the seven members of the basketball team that had a 53-6 record.
"We lost to Melbourne 3 times, Highland by 8, Calico Rock by 3 and Mammoth Springs by 1 in the district tournament,"? teammate Eugene Lyons wrote in a letter to the judge shortly before he died in December.
Keith Moser's religious dedication was legendary in the Mount Pleasant community.
Bruce Qualls, pastor of the Mount Pleasant Southern Baptist Church, told Judge Wright that he dedicated himself to Bible study after learning from Kenny Moser that his older brother had read through the entire Bible.
"To consider the fact that someone as capable and successful as Keith saw the need to pursue spiritual concerns directed me to look more closely at the teachings of the Bible," Qualls wrote.
Donnie Fulbright, now mayor of Mount Pleasant, said he "always looked up to (Keith Moser) while we were growing up. He always set a good example; he was a strong leader in school and church."?
Schoolmate Rebecca Short, now of Salem, said even the basketball schedule revolved around Keith Moser's faith.
"(The coaches) felt that there would be a need to schedule the game on a Wednesday night, but they knew if that occurred, Keith would not be there to play in the game because he faithfully attended church each Wednesday night. Thus the game was scheduled for another night to enable him to participate," Short wrote.
"This was just one example of the knowledge by everyone of his faith that he displayed as a young man. In addition, I remember him as being kind and compassionate to those less fortunate, while many of his male classmates chose to ridicule."?
Keith was a serious student who tutored classmates and graduated as Mount Pleasant's salutatorian in 1974. "I believe that Keith had the highest SAT score of any student at Mt. Pleasant school at graduation,"? family friend Luther Shaw of Batesville wrote to Wright.
It was during high school that Moser met Nina Jo Lacy, and they married in their hometown on June 12, 1976, while he was a 19-year-old student at the University of Central Arkansas at Conway.
A nephew, Jon-athan Moser of Wynne, told the judge in his letter of support that his Uncle Keith was "the only person in the family to graduate college."? He was, as E.F. Lamb Jr. of Melbourne wrote, "a rising star in our rural community in North Arkansas."
Early Law Career
After graduating from UCA in 1978, Moser took a fast track through law school at the University of Arkansas, finishing in 1980. He passed the bar exam and was admitted to the practice of law the following year.
His first job after law school was as a clerk in the Arkansas Court of Appeals from 1981 to 1983. He would later practice with the Davidson Law Firm in Little Rock and form a short-lived partnership with Mark Allen Plake.
As soon as he was working full time, Keith Moser began making substantial annual contributions to Boy Scout Troop 911 back home in Mount Pleasant, a tradition he continued for more than 20 years. He also continued making contributions to the church where he grew up and to a Church of Christ medical mission in Nigeria. These regular contributions, and others that he began in later years, would continue until his career ended in 2004.
Moser was licensed as a certified public accountant in 1983, and he maintained his certification until his license expired in 2001.
Nina Moser, meanwhile, went to work as a legal secretary for Little Rock attorney H. William Allen and has remained in that position for nearly 25 years. She gave birth to the couple's two daughters in January 1984 and May 1986.
Although Moser was practicing law and his wife was working as a legal secretary, the young family had a rough patch financially. Brandon Furniture Co. received a default judgment against the Mosers for $7,127 in unpaid furniture bills in March 1987.
A year later, Moser & Plake was the subject of a $2,263 judgment for unpaid bills to International Thomson (U.S.), a law book publisher. That was about the same time that Moser incorporated his own law firm and moved his practice to the 12th floor of the Stephens Building in downtown Little Rock.
In 1991, he and pension specialist Barry Jewell teamed up to form Jewell & Moser, a partnership that would end in rancor when Moser's legal problems began to blow back on the firm in 2002. Jewell & Moser almost immediately hired Scott Fletcher, fresh out of Southern Illinois University's law school, as an associate.
Moser became a go-to guy for attorneys whose clients had complex tax issues.
"I have known Keith Moser professionally since the early 1990's when he was kind enough to advise me on a client's hard Limited Partnership problem,"? Little Rock lawyer Ralph G. Brodie wrote in a letter to Judge Wright. "After that I began to rely on him more and more to discuss tough tax questions as the years rolled on. I found him to always be both technically sound and ethically grounded."
In the early 1990s, Moser also became a regular patron of Children's Homes Inc. of Paragould, a nonprofit residential care program affiliated with the Church of Christ. His support would continue for 13 years, according to a letter from the former executive director, James Balcom.
The First Cracks
Some supporters who wrote to Judge Wright in late 2004 seemed to believe that it was the collapse of his marriage to Nina Lacy Moser in 1998 that marked the beginning of Keith Moser's spiritual and ethical crisis. However, one of the crimes he pleaded guilty to, tax fraud, was committed in 1996. And civil actions filed in Pulaski County Circuit Court allege that Moser was involved in deceptive practices as early as 1993.
For instance, in 1993 he created a corporation called FS Capital Corp. through which he paid his daughters' tuition at Central Arkansas Christian School, a private school affiliated with the Church of Christ. Yet he didn't file an income tax return for FS Capital for at least six years, and money from his client trust accounts was transferred in and out of FS Capital and other corporate entities that he established and controlled.
It was also about 1993 that Moser told a client, Robert T. Bomar of Little Rock, that another client was interested in buying Bomar's struggling company, Scanning Technologies Inc. Moser had represented Scanning Technologies since 1989, and Bomar authorized Keith Moser and Barry Jewell to negotiate the sale of a partial interest in the company to two corporate investors called EAB Enterprises Inc. and FBN Investment Inc.
The investments by EAB Enterprises and FBN Investment allowed the company to become "a successful business" with "a list of blue chip clients which included Coca-Cola and Boeing," according to a lawsuit Bomar filed against Moser and Jewell in 2004.
Bomar never met any of the officers of the two corporations, and a decade would pass before he came to the conclusion that Moser and Jewell were actually representing themselves. An Internal Revenue Service investigator testified last month that Moser and an unnamed law partner -- presumably Jewell -- invested and lost between $400,000 and $425,000 in Scanning Technologies.
The investigator, Dan Elliott, described the Scanning Technologies investment as a loser for Moser's unwitting clients as well: Between 1996 and 2000, about $1.4 million of client trust account money went to the company.
In 1998, Moser started trying to make up the deficit by investing even more client money in the stock market. "Ultimately it increased the debt,"? Elliott said.
In 1996 or 1997, Bomar said, Emerson Electric Co. offered to buy Scanning Technologies, but Moser and Jewell -- on behalf of the investor clients -- rejected the offer and "made an outrageous counter offer which was more than the initial asking price,"? the lawsuit filed by attorney Tim Dudley said.
Later, Boeing Co. offered "several million dollars"? for Scanning Technologies, according to Bomar,s account.
"Defendant Moser basically told Boeing to 'get lost.' When he did so, Boeing, who was a major customer of Scanning Technologies, withdrew its business from Scanning Technologies,"? Bomar said in the lawsuit. Scanning Technologies never recovered from the loss of that major account; by the end of 2001, the company's corporate status had been revoked.
Several years later, when the FBI was investigating Moser's activities in a Michigan case, Bomar received information that convinced him that EAB Enterprises and FBN Investment were fronts for Jewell and Moser themselves, that there had been no client investors.
At the time, though, Bomar did not suspect his lawyer of duplicity. After all, Moser had established such a solid reputation as a tax law specialist that he co-authored a 1994 booklet called "Asset Protection Planning in Arkansas,"? which was published by the National Business Institute of Eau Claire, Wis., and apparently was at one time used as a text at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock Law School.
The Jewell & Moser firm was growing. In 1993, Sharrock Dermott joined.
In 1995, the Jewell & Moser firm hired a newly minted tax lawyer with a legal legacy in Little Rock: Theodore C. "Teddy"? Skokos Jr. The next year Teddy Skokos' father, lawyer and businessman Theodore C. "Ted"? Skokos Sr., sold Cellular One in Little Rock to Southwestern Bell Telephone Co., and his 10.34 percent share brought him just under $10 million. Ted Skokos came to his son's employer for help in handling the windfall.
Moser's plan involved creating a Wyoming corporation to buy Little Rock Cellular Partnership, the entity that owned Skokos' share of Cellular One, for $2.8 million and then selling the Wyoming company to Southwest-ern Bell for more than three times as much. He funneled the balance into a trust fund represented as a qualified retirement plan on which no taxes would be due until the money was distributed. The backdating of contracts and documents was required in order to make the chain work.
"It was further part of an object of the conspiracy that (Moser) would develop a means whereby the executive could gain access to the funds placed in this trust by making it appear that the funds were in the control of a disinterested third party when, in fact, they were under the control of the executive,"? according to the charge filed against Moser in January 2004.
Moser made it appear to the IRS that Skokos had sold his interest in Cellular One for $2.8 million rather than $9.9 million. Defrauding the government in the Skokos deal was one of the crimes he pleaded guilty to in 2004.
Ted Skokos has not been charged in connection with the tax fraud; in fact, he has never been identified by federal prosecutors. He does not, however, deny being "the executive" referred to in the charges against Moser and has said that he simply relied on the advice he received from the Jewell & Moser firm.
By the end of 1990s, the Jewell & Moser law firm had been renamed Jewell Moser Fletcher & Holleman after the addition of John Holleman and the elevation of longtime associate Scott Fletcher to partner. Fletcher described the two Keith Mosers in a 2004 interview with Arkansas Business:
"Moser was very difficult to work for at times. He would scream and holler and throw a hissy fit and run up and down stairs. At other times, he was very nice; he'd give you his shirt off his back."?
A sign that hung at the firm's Hot Springs Village office described Jewell & Moser as "leaders in creative tax and estate planning."? The firm's "aggressive"? stance on tax planning was a big part of its marketing appeal.
"[E]ven if we cannot eliminate all income taxes, we will eliminate virtually all income taxes. We are talking about eliminating millions in income taxes and millions in estate taxes,"? Fletcher said in 1997 in a letter to a potential client.
"It is an extremely aggressive approach,"? he wrote. "However, it is also very beneficial to our clients who do not mind taking a little risk by ending up in some 'gray' areas of the law."?
It was a similar sales pitch that encouraged Geraldine Reshel of Jacksonville to hire Moser in 1996 for tax planning on the $175,000 a year in Florida Lottery winnings she inherited from her husband. Moser proposed to save her thousands in income tax each year by setting up a corporation to pay her a salary with about half of the winnings while socking away the other half in a qualified retirement plan.
According to the lawsuit she filed in February 2004 in Pulaski County Circuit Court, neither Moser nor anyone else from his firm filed tax returns for the corporation between 1997 and 2002. What's more, he failed to make promised deposits into a tax-qualified pension plan, even though returns were filed with the IRS claiming that proper deposits were made.
Reshel claims to have lost $749,000 through Moser's malpractice. She also owed the IRS more than $150,000 in penalties and interest.
The Divorce and After
Two of Keith Moser's supporters suggested to Judge Wright that Keith and Nina divorced after Nina fell in love with another man.
"When the divorce went through, he gave everything he possibly could to his ex-wife and the two girls, and the girls stayed with him about half the time,"? a friend of Moser's parents said in a touching four-page, handwritten letter to Judge Wright.
The court record of the divorce, however, never suggests that Nina Moser's affection had been alienated, nor does it support the idea that Keith willingly made a generous financial settlement with his former wife.
This is the story told by that court record:
In March 1998, Keith and Nina Moser and their two daughters, then 14 and 11, traveled to Jackson Hole, Wyo., for a ski trip that had become a family tradition. The trip to Wyoming was their last activity as an intact family.
On March 14, while the family was in Jackson Hole, Moser announced that he was leaving the marriage. He left alone, and Nina Moser had to make arrangement to get herself and the girls back home.
Five days later, Moser filed for divorce in a complaint that accused Nina of "general indignities."?
Back in Little Rock, Nina discovered that her husband had rented an apartment at the Westside Creek Apartments the week before they left on the ski trip. And two days before they left, he cashed out $67,000 in Wal-Mart stock.
Nina Moser's lawyer, Jack Wagoner III of Little Rock, would spend the next year and a half trying to chase down Moser's assets, just as the FBI and IRS would a few years later. A protective order prevents Wagoner from talking publicly about the Moser divorce, but the court record -- four files each more than an inch thick -- is rife with examples that supported what Wagoner then suspected was tax fraud on a "grand scale."
"I think that there is documentation that has come to light through discovery in this case that creates a strong suspicion in my mind and would for the Internal Revenue Service or criminal authorities investigating this matter,"? Wagoner said in a May 1999 deposition.
At one point, Wagoner -- in a motion for contempt of court -- accused Moser of lying about the size and location of marital assets.
At some point during the months before the divorce was granted on Dec. 19, 1999, Moser took the first of at least nine trips to Las Vegas. Over the next four years, he would gamble away at least $345,000 from his client trust fund.
The gambling may have been an attempt to replenish the seven-figure deficit in his client trust accounts. But if Moser was desperate to repay the stolen money, he wasn't desperate enough to actually curtail his own spending -- not even his generous giving -- in order to do it.
In 2000, he gave his older daughter a $30,000-plus BMW for her 16th birthday. (He would do the same for his younger daughter in 2002.) He also began making regular contributions to Truth for Today World Mission School, a mission program of the Church of Christ based in Searcy, while continuing with his other charitable donations.
Moser worked to preserve his relationship with his daughters. He instituted a standing Wednesday dinner date with the girls, and the younger girl moved in with him for awhile after her mother remarried.
About the same time, he started dating Valerie Lynn Pike Walker, the daughter of retired Little Rock surgeon John D. Pike Sr. and his wife, Vaughn. Valerie Walker was a divorced mother nearly 20 years his junior, and Keith Moser endeared himself to her by his treatment of her son.
"Two months after knowing Keith I found out my son had to have heart surgery at the age of four. Keith was very supportive to me through this difficult time in my life and I will always be greatfull [sic] to him for his loving and caring," she wrote to Judge Wright.
After the surgery, he took Valerie and the boy to Disneyland, she told the judge.
In 2000, Moser was one of the "top vote-getters” among tax attorneys in the Arkansas Times' "Best Lawyers" feature, which surveyed attorneys around the state. 2000 was also the year that a client of Jewell Moser Fletcher & Holleman was having some success extorting kickbacks. There is no evidence that Keith Moser was involved until mid-2001, but the scheme quickly fell apart after he began negotiating the bribes.
Next week: Keith Moser's world turns upside down.
More on Moser
Click here to see more of Arkansas Business' coverage of the Moser story.
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