Former Roanoke restaurant owner pays most of unpaid taxes, enters into plea agreement

ROANOKE, Va. (WDBJ7)-- For the first time in more than a decade, a former Roanoke City restaurant owner appeared in court Wednesday and was prosecuted for not paying taxes.

Mel's Place Wood Fired Pizza shut their doors in January. The eatery owed the city more than $42,000 in unpaid meals taxes and were indicted in November on felony embezzlement charges.

The owner, Chris Graham, entered into a plea agreement Wednesday and saw most of the charges against him dropped. Graham pleaded no contest to one felony embezzlement charge and paid $37,000 of the balance on the spot.

He has until October to pay the remaining $5,000. As a part of the agreement, an on-time payment will result in his charge being dropped to a misdemeanor.

Graham’s fiance, Michele Green, was also facing charges, but the Commonwealth dropped all of them. The couples’ attorney, Rob Dean, said she did not have anything to do with the finances for the business.

Dean told the judge that Graham and Green came from a small vacation town in Maine and did not understand the process of paying meals taxes in a bigger city.

"He knew all along that he was required to pay taxes. He didn't know where, how or when,” said Dean. “Eventually he got it resolved. Unfortunately it took a criminal case to that, but he is glad that he did it today."

"I'm going to keep on being consistent and collecting the taxes for the City of Roanoke,” said Evelyn Powers, Roanoke City Treasurer.

Powers’ office took over collecting the city’s trust taxes, which include the meals tax, two years ago. Her team noticed that some restaurant owners were late on their taxes for multiple months.

Powers said that her office tries to work with owners, sends letters every month and offers payment plans. Last fall, Powers decided to take a tougher approach and hand cases over to the Commonwealth Attorney’s office for potential charges as a last effort to get the bills paid.

"It is not a decision that I take lightly, it is a hard decision to do, but you know I was elected to collect the taxes for the city of Roanoke and I take that responsibility seriously,” Powers.

Powers has handed three other cases over to the Commonwealth Attorney’s office, but she said those restaurants have been cooperating and no charges have been placed at this time. The city is still owed more than $250,000 in delinquent meals taxes.