PROVIDENCE — When he won the first season of “Survivor,” Richard Hatch convinced a jury that he should win the $1 million prize.
But as the latest season of “Survivor” begins, the Newport resident could soon be facing a very different jury: He is representing himself in a US District Court case as federal prosecutors attempt to collect nearly $3 million in delinquent income taxes, penalties, and interest stemming from his reality-TV victory 23 years ago.
Legal experts said the reality is that Hatch faces a distinct disadvantage as he squares off against the US Department of Justice while serving as his own lawyer.
Hatch, who does not have a law degree, told the Globe he recognizes the problems posed by attempting to defend himself.
“I could neither afford an attorney nor find one yet to handle the case (or even advise me),” he wrote in an email. “As to whether I feel representing myself puts me at a disadvantage, it most certainly does! And our ‘justice’ system simply ignores that disadvantage, steaming along and pretending as if its unfairness is of no consequence.”
In January 2006, a jury found Hatch guilty of two counts of tax evasion for failing to report his “Survivor” prize money, and he was sentenced to 51 months in prison. He was required to file amended income tax returns and pay back taxes, but prosecutors said he failed to do so.
Now, the US Department of Justice is asking US District Court Judge William E. Smith to order the sale of 21 and 23 Annandale Road in Newport to help pay off what Hatch owes the government. Prosecutors allege that Hatch either is the true owner of those properties or that he fraudulently transferred them to his sister, Kristin Hatch. And prosecutors said Hatch lived in one or both of the properties for unknown periods of time.
Hatch, who lists a different Newport address as his home, has denied those allegations and requested a jury trial. No trial date has been set, and the two sides are filing pre-trial motions.
For example, Hatch filed a motion on July 24 asking the court to “compel government to withdraw and correct lies in communications with (defendants) and restrict government from stating allegations as fact.”
He noted that prosecutors had claimed his sister obtained a mortgage “after one of the properties was fraudulently transferred.” But he said that claim is false and he has provided information to show that.
“Defendant believes the US government’s false communications are defamatory and prejudicial,” Hatch wrote, asking the judge to “instruct the government to correct all communications with defendants in this case to reflect what is true.”
In court filings, Samantha S. Lieb, a trial attorney in the US Department of Justice Tax Division based in Washington, D.C., wrote that prosecutors had received a letter from Hatch calling the fraudulent transfer allegation “a blatant lie.” She said prosecutors had responded by telling him they’d alleged a fraudulent conveyance but that he’d have the chance to defend himself.
“Please do not, however, characterize our allegations as lies to the other parties in this case,” Lieb wrote to Hatch. “Our lien enforcement count in the complaint pleads facts that support our theory that you fraudulently transferred the Annandale properties to Kristin and/or that Kristin is your nominee and you are the true owner.”
Lieb said Hatch sent her three more emails “expressing similar sentiments,” but prosecutors did not respond to those emails.
In an Aug. 7 filing, Hatch said those additional emails were meant to “clarify his concerns” and to seek “a courtesy call to avoid involving the court.” He reiterated that his sister was never his nominee and that neither property was fraudulently transferred.
“The government’s knowingly presenting any of its claims as factual seems inappropriate, if not sanctionable,” Hatch wrote. “False claims, such as those expressed, negatively impact audiences and serve no legitimate purpose in discovery. Defendant is appearing pro se, has negligible legal competence, and is relying solely on the premise reality (what’s true) matters.”
But on Aug. 8, Judge Smith denied Hatch’s motion to order prosecutors “to withdraw and correct lies.” The court held a “discovery dispute conference” on Sept. 11 to address how the two sides exchange information.
In a text message to the Globe on Tuesday, Hatch provided more detail, saying his sister moved into a home he owned before he filmed “Survivor.”
“While there, she identified and considered buying a multi-family home next door to mine,” he wrote. “Since I had been a licensed real estate agent, Kristin asked for my guidance and assistance in 2001 with respect to whether she could manage and should buy this neighboring property.”
He said he had always helped family members with real estate decisions. “And I helped Kristin buy this two-family property knowing it was perfect for her to both live in and create retirement savings she was not building as a waitress,” he wrote.
Hatch said his sister paid for the home and has maintained it ever since, but the government placed a lien on the property, claiming she was his nominee. And now, prosecutors claim the property was fraudulently transferred, he noted, adding that his sister had hired a respected real estate attorney during the purchase.
“This is nonsensical bullying and clearly inequitable treatment,” Hatch wrote.
Michael J. Yelnosky, a Roger Williams University School of Law professor and the school’s former dean, said federal public defenders are available for criminal trials but not a civil case such as this one. While Hatch is allowed to represent himself, he said, “It’s not good for him, and it’s not good for anybody, frankly.”
Before trial, Hatch must file motions, respond to prosecutors, and deal with the exchange of evidence, and that is difficult for a non-lawyer to handle, Yelnosky said. “He is undoubtedly going to make mistakes that a competent lawyer wouldn’t,” he said.
And the difficulties only mount when a case goes to trial because it’s tough to examine witnesses, cross-examine witnesses, and introduce documents into evidence, Yelnosky said. Also, he said, “It’s really hard to separate yourself from the emotion of the merits of the case.”
Yelnosky cited the old adage that anyone who represents himself in court “has a fool for a client.”
Judges do their best to try to work with defendants who are representing themselves while trying to avoid being “unfairly solicitous,” he said, and prosecutors must “walk a fine line” between seeking a conviction without being too strident in dealing with a non-lawyer.
But, Yelnosky said, “Any judge will tell you that the best case — where you’re getting close to the heart of the truth of the matter — is when the case is litigated on both sides by a good, competent lawyer.”
A lawyer can serve as a buffer for a defendant, he said. “Whatever opinions one might have about Richard Hatch, either pro or con, that is going to influence the way people respond to his lawyering,” he said.
A lawyer also would take the focus off a defendant, presenting his side of the story and arguing with prosecutors and conveying to jurors that “I’m the person you need to trust or not trust,” he said.
Yelnosky said inmates sometimes represent themselves in cases they initiate, but it’s rare to see someone defending themselves in a case such as Hatch’s. “It’s unusual for a case to go all the way through, including a trial, with a pro se litigant,” he said.
So will Hatch represent himself at trial or end up with a lawyer? Will prosecutors force a sale of the Newport properties or will Hatch prevail? Stay tuned.
This story has been updated with comments from Richard Hatch.