Crime & Courts

Owner of Nome hotel destroyed in fatal 2017 fire indicted on charges of federal tax evasion

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The owner of a Nome hotel, bar and liquor store destroyed in a 2017 fatal fire now faces a federal indictment on charges she failed to report more than $3 million in income to the Internal Revenue Service.

Tina Yi, who operated the Polaris Hotel through a company, SJ Investment LLC, evaded more than $1.5 million in federal income taxes by filing false personal tax returns from 2014 through 2018, according to the indictment filed last month and unsealed this week. It claims that in total, Yi failed to report more than $3.2 million in income from SJ Investment.

Yi forwarded a call from the Daily News to her attorney, Christy Lee.

“The community needs to keep in mind that the charges against Tina Yi are only allegations,” Lee said in an emailed statement on Thursday. “Tina is not guilty unless proven otherwise. My client is confident that the evidence will corroborate her innocence.”

Located in the middle of Nome near the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race finish line, the Polaris had 34 rooms, several apartments, and a sometimes rowdy bar, especially when race crowds were in town. The building was originally built in 1953, according to prior reports. Yi created the business in 2007 and operated it through 2017, according to the indictment.

[A worker saved lives in Nome’s hotel fire, but it was too late for one woman]

The fire, in October 2017, killed longtime Nome resident 63-year-old Bette Haugen. Yi told The Nome Nugget that she and her husband were en route to Korea when the blaze broke out. All of her office records burned in the fire, she told the newspaper.

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Federal prosecutors accuse Yi of maintaining two sets of books and records — one accurate, the other understating the total — relating to income and expenses for 2014 through 2017, the indictment says. They claim she provided the false records to her accountant to use in the preparation of her tax returns, and did the same with a new tax preparer in 2018.

Yi received a more than $1.8 million insurance payout in 2018, according to the indictment. The discrepancy in her accounting systems was discovered when Yi submitted financial records to a forensic CPA as part of the insurance claim, prosecutors wrote.

SJ Investment still owns two parcels where the hotel, bar and restaurant once stood. As of this week, the company owed more than $23,500 in property taxes, according to a city official.

Yi made her initial court appearance Wednesday afternoon before U.S. Magistrate Judge Matthew M. Scoble in Anchorage, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

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Zaz Hollander

Longtime ADN reporter Zaz Hollander is based in the Mat-Su and is currently focused on coverage of the coronavirus in Alaska. She also covers the Mat-Su region, aviation and general assignments. Contact her at zhollander@adn.com.

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