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‘Chef Mo’ charged with skipping tax

A man whose restaurant had become a favorite of the downtown set before the business was briefly closed and then sold was arrested on Wednesday and charged with failing to pay the city’s meals tax for nearly three months.

Maurice Randolph Wilson was known as “Chef Mo” to people who visited his popular Grits ‘n’ Gravy eatery on E. Washington Street before he sold it on Aug. 12. He owes Suffolk $1,524.54 in collected taxes, according to city Treasurer Ron Williams.

The Treasurer’s office instituted a criminal complaint against the chef after repeated efforts to contact him and settle the debt, Williams said Thursday.

“The criminal complaint was the last resort,” he said. “When he wouldn’t contact us, that was a bad sign.”

Williams said Wilson had not been a collection problem until the spring, when PIIMP LLC, which was responsible for the payments, submitted a bad check to pay the 6.5-percent city meals tax that had been collected from customers.

Officials were able to collect that money, but then Wilson fell behind his payments in June, and he soon “sold the business and was difficult to reach,” Williams said.

When Wilson’s company was no longer in a position to settle the debt owed to the city, the situation changed and “he could be held personally responsible,” Williams added.

Restaurants collect Suffolk’s meals tax on top of the state sales tax. The money they collect is supposed to be turned over to the city’s Treasurer by the 20th of the following month. Failure to do so, Williams said, “is actually embezzling under the fraud statute.”

When restaurateurs fail to meet their obligations to the city, Williams’ office will try to work with them — as long as officials feel they are being dealt with in good faith.

“But if the restaurant closes, we have no other recourse,” he said.

In Suffolk, various restaurant owners have learned that the results of unpaid meals taxes can range from arrest warrants to liens taken out on equipment to having the sheriff confiscate equipment and shut the restaurant down.

“The meals tax is a trust tax under the law,” Williams said. By Thursday afternoon, the Treasurer’s office still had not heard from Wilson, he said.