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Castroneves pleads innocent in court

Helio CastronevesHelio Castroneves pleaded innocent to charges of tax evasion and fraud that could send him to prison, and will continue racing this weekend.

The Penske driver appeared before Miami federal court this afternoon.

"I am not guilty," Castroneves told reporters outside the courthouse. "This is a very difficult situation. I have faith in these guys (his lawyers) and faith in God. I'll be strong, and I'll win this race."

Reports indicate Castroneves, who was handcuffed and shackled in the courtroom, wept during the arraignment. He posted a $10 million bond and surrendered his passport.

Castroneves faces seven charges - each carrying a maximum of five years in prison if convicted - that he conspired to hide income through off-shore companies and bank accounts. His sister, Kati Castroneves, and lawyer Alan Miller also have been charged in the case.

The restriction on travelling abroad means Castroneves probably won't be driving for Penske in the non-championship IRL IndyCar Series race at Surfers Paradise in Australia later this month, but he will compete for Penske's American Le Mans Series arm at this weekend's Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta.

His teammate in the Penske Porsche, Ryan Briscoe, qualified first in the LMP2 class, and Castroneves left Miami after the arraignment to return to the circuit.

Penske Racing executive vice president Bud Denker said it is too early to discuss Castroneves' future with the team.

"Until Roger (Penske) and Tim (Cindric) and I have a chance to sit down and talk to him, we can't come to a conclusion on that," Denker said. "Those things are too premature right now. For us right now, it's the same old same old.

"We're on the pole, and that's what we're focused on. This is a little speed bump we have to get over. It's too soon to speculate."

Meanwhile, an Indy Racing League official said the sanctioning body has eligibility guidelines regarding criminal behaviour, but the rules don't apply until someone is convicted of a crime.

"There are clauses or sections within our rulebook that talk about behaviour on and off the racetrack," said IRL spokesman John Griffin. "At this point, it's premature to speculate on any action we might take. We'll let him have his day in court. Everyone is presumed innocent."

The indictment accuses Castroneves, his sister and Miller of conspiring to hide more than $5 million of Castroneves' income from the Internal Revenue Service by using companies based in Panama, the Netherlands and Switzerland.

One of Castroneves' lawyers, David Garvin, indicated Castroneves was unaware of the scheme.

"Helio has always done the appropriate thing and hired accountants and attorneys he relied upon," Garvin told the Associated Press. "We are of the strong belief that he did not do anything wrong. We're looking forward to going to court."

Meanwhile, Miller's lawyer told the AP that the case was a public relations stunt.

"(Miller) acted at all times completely lawfully," lawyer Michael Tein said. "He is 1,000 per cent innocent. This case is pure harassment by the government in order to try to indict a famous person and get press."

However, the 22-page indictment accuses Castroneves, his sister and Miller of lying to a New York tax firm about their knowledge of the movement of money.

Among other details of the indictment were Castroneves' reported earnings in 2001 and 2002, when he received a large portion of the prize money from winning two Indianapolis 500s. In 2001, he reported annual income of $875,000 - considerably below what he was actually paid, the indictment contends. In 2002, he reported $1.3 million.

The prize money for the 2001 Indy 500 victory was $1.3 million. The total in 2002 was $1.6 million.

"Helio Castroneves is a very competent and talented professional racecar driver." said Mark Seiden, one of Castroneves' lawyers. "He is not an accountant or a tax lawyer."

Prosecutors say the high-profile case serves as a warning to people attempting to hide income in offshore accounts.

"Taxpayers, small and large, famous and not famous, should be aware of the enormously severe consequences they face if they fraudulently use offshore accounts to hide income, including potentially going to prison, paying back all their taxes plus interest and penalties, and being branded a felon for the rest of their lives," said Nathan J Hochman, assistant attorney general of the Justice Department's Tax Division, in a press release.

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