tampabay.com

Payroll clients left in lurch

By Christina Rexrode
Published May 18, 2007


Bradley Chais started to worry a few weeks ago, when Professional Payroll Plus didn't return some routine phone calls.

Then he got blind-sided by a certified letter from the Internal Revenue Service, which threatened a levy if he didn't pay his company's employment taxes.

"Until then, " said Chais, 37, "we were very happy with them PPP." He had hired the Land O'Lakes company last year to process the payroll for his four-employee business, Team Chais of Keller Williams Realty.

He's not the only one who has been thrown for a loop. On Tuesday, Chais and representatives of five other local companies filed complaints with the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, which has opened a criminal investigation into PPP. The companies accuse PPP of withholding money for taxes from employee paychecks, then keeping that money and stiffing the IRS. Separately, at least one former PPP client has filed a civil suit.

It all started with a Thursday morning breakfast group.

There are about two dozen members in a North Tampa chapter of BNI, an international networking group. They meet weekly at the Piccadilly restaurant on N Dale Mabry Highway.

Last year, members say, a woman named Emily Evans joined the group. Evans worked for PPP, and several members - and friends of members - became PPP clients through the breakfast connection.

"She was pretty professional about representing the company, " said Reuel De La Rosa, president of Amrose Care, an assisted living facility in Tampa. "But you know, anybody can look professional."

There weren't any telltale red flags around Evans or the payroll company, its former clients say.

"Everything on the surface looked like it was running fine, " said Dr. Mike Radice, 41, who runs Radice Family Chiropractic in Tampa.

That changed a few weeks ago when the letters from the IRS started arriving, Evans stopped coming to the Thursday meetings, and PPP dismantled its Web site and stopped answering the phone, clients said.

De La Rosa, 51, drove to PPP's offices when his calls weren't returned. No one was there, he said, so he peered through the glass door. "I saw the (company) banner on the floor, " De La Rosa said, "and I thought, 'This is not good.' "

There are allegations brewing in court, as well: Herold Home Services, a Hillsborough company that does home renovations and repairs, has filed a lawsuit in Hillsborough Circuit Court that makes similar accusations against PPP. Andy Mayts of Holcomb & Mayts, Herold's law firm, said he expects to file on behalf of a second company by early next week. That company, he said, might have lost as much as $100, 000 to PPP.

Most of the former PPP clients who filed reports with the Sheriff's Office say they've been told by the IRS that their payroll taxes were paid through January or February. They each estimate that they've lost at least several thousand dollars to PPP. And they're still on the hook to the IRS.

"As understanding as Uncle Sam is, " said Radice, "he still wants his money."

Debbie Carter, a spokeswoman for the Sheriff's Office, declined to comment except to say, "It's going to be a very lengthy investigation."

In state records, Elizabeth Mascitti, 51, is listed as president of Professional Payroll Plus in Land O'Lakes. Her husband, Ronald, 41, is vice president.

Despite PPP's trouble, the Mascittis are moving forward with plans for a new company. They recently filed to incorporate Florida HR Solutions Inc. at 7011 Land O'Lakes Blvd., down the street from PPP's old offices.

Ronald Mascitti answered the phone there Thursday. "Ma'am, don't call me on this line, " he said, before hanging up

Evans did not return calls seeking comment, though her voice mail message indicates that she works for the Mascittis' new company.

Their former clients expressed disbelief on hearing about the new company.

"They think they can do this and then move on and do it again, " said Arthur Breur, 38, who owns Breur Media Corp. in Lutz.

Added De La Rosa: "Do they think that we're that stupid, that we're just going to let this thing go?"

Gloria Sutton, an IRS spokeswoman in Jacksonville, said the IRS will work with any business or individual with an "ongoing tax situation" on a case by case basis.

Christina Rexrode can be reached at crexrode@sptimes.com">href="mailto:crexrode@sptimes.com" mce_href="mailto:crexrode@sptimes.com">crexrode@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8318.

Fast Facts:

 

Professional Payroll Plus

The business: Handles payroll processing for small businesses.

The accusations: Several former clients say the company didn't pass on employee withholding taxes to the IRS.

The status: A criminal investigation is under way, and at least one civil suit has been filed.