Saturday, August 13, 2022

An Interpretive Battle Among Textualists Judges Over Statute Criminalizing False Liens Against U.S. Officers or Employees (8/13/22)

In United States v. Pate, ___ F.4th ___, 2022 U.S. App. LEXIS 22174  (11th Cir. 8/10/22), CA11 here and GS here [to come], the majority opinion sets up the issue decided in the opening paragraph:

            Title 18 U.S.C. § 1521 prohibits the filing of a false lien or encumbrance against the property of any officer or employee of the United States “on account of the performance of official duties.” In 2018, Timothy Jermaine Pate filed various false liens against John Koskinen, the former Commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service, and Jacob Lew, the former Secretary of the Treasury. There is no dispute that Pate filed the false liens to retaliate against Lew and Koskinen for acts they performed as part of their official duties. The twist here, and what makes this a case of first impression for this Court, is that Pate filed the false liens after Lew and Koskinen had left their positions with the federal government. We therefore are presented with the following question: Does § 1521 apply to false liens filed against former federal officers and employees for official actions they performed while in service with the federal government? We conclude that the answer to this question is yes—the plain language of § 1521 covers both current and former federal officers and employees. Thus, for the reasons discussed below, and with the benefit of oral argument, we affirm Pate’s convictions predicated on violations of § 1521.

The majority (Judge Lagoa with Judge Branch joining) and dissenting (Judge Newsom) opinions engage over interpretation of a criminal statute.  The three judges are Trump appointees and, not surprisingly, members of the Federalist Society, which permits an inference that they are textualists, an inference confirmed by the opinions.  The majority opinion claims that its decision is based on the plain language of the statute, reasonably interpreted of course.  The dissent claims that the plain language, as it reads the text, does not support the majority.  Both sides rely on parts of the work of the master textualist and sloganeer, Justice Scalia.  Antonin Scalia & Bryan A. Garner, Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts (2012).  Both sides deploy dictionaries, judicial sound bites, and slogans to justify the differing conclusions, with each side accusing the other of not being good textualists.  Of course, we should not expect a uniform meaning of textualism, so I suppose this type of difference is not surprising. And we should recognize that there is sufficient play in the joints of textualism to permit judges to reach their preferred conclusions.  

I think the majority has the better side of the engagement of giving a reasonable interpretation to the text.

Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Government Motion in Kepke Case to Exclude Expert Testimony About the Law (8/10/22)

I picked up an argument in a Government Motion to Exclude Defendant’s Proffered Expert Witness in the Kepke prosecution, United States v. Kepke (N.D. Cal. Criminal No. 3:21-CR-00155-JD), Motion dated 8/5/22, here. In general, the Government claims that Kepke’s expert witness disclosures were too cryptic to understand the expert witness’s proffered testimony, but the Government inferred that the expert witness would improperly testify about the law. Here are the three key paragraphs I focus on (Motion pp, 7-9):

             Expert witnesses are not permitted to offer opinions consisting of their interpretation of the law. See Hangarter v. Provident Life and Acc. Ins. Co., 373 F.3d 998, 1018 (9th Cir. 2004) (quoting Mukhtar v. Cal. State Univ., Hayward, 299 F.3d 1053, 1066 n. 10 (9th Cir. 2002), overruled on other grounds by Barabin v. AstenJohnson, Inc., 740 F.3d 457, 467 (9th Cir. 2014)); see also Snap-Drape, Inc. v. Comm’r, 98 F.3d 194, 198 (5th Cir. 1996). “[I]instructing the jury as to the applicable law is the distinct and exclusive province of the court.” Nationwide Transp. Fin. V. Cass Info. Sys., Inc., 523, F.3d 1051, 1058-59 (9th Cir. 2008); see also United States v. Caputo, 517 F.3d 935, 942 (7th Cir. 2008) (“The only legal expert in a federal courtroom is the judge.”); United States v. Weitzenhoff, 35 F.3d 1275, 1287 (9th Cir. 1993); CZ Services, Inc. v. Express Scripts Holding Co., 3:18-cv-04217-JD, 2020 WL 4518978, at * 2 (N.D. Cal. Aug. 5, 2020) (“[L]egal opinions are not the proper subject of expert testimony. Reed v. Lieurance, 863 F.3d 1196, 1209 (9th Cir. 2017). An expert may not give opinions that are legal conclusions, United States v. Tamman, 782 F.3d 543, 552-53 (9th Cir. 2015), or attempt to advise the jury on the law, Strong v. Valdez Fine Foods, 724 F.3d 1042, 1046-47 (9th Cir. 2013).”).

            In at least one criminal tax case, the Ninth Circuit approved expert testimony about the law where “the theory of the defense [was] that there [was] a good faith dispute as to the interpretation of the tax laws.” See United States v. Clardy, 612 F.2d 1139, 1153 (9th Cir. 1980) (citing United States v. Garber, 607 F.2d 92 (5th Cir. 1979) (distinguished by United States v. Burton, 737 F.2d 439, 444 (5th Cir. 1984)). But that does not mean that legal evidence is automatically admissible in all criminal tax trials. To the contrary, courts regularly exclude legal experts in criminal tax cases. See, e.g., United States v. Boulware, 558 F.3d 971, 974-75 (9th Cir. 2009) (affirming exclusion of expert testimony that specific “corporate distributions were legally non-taxable” as an impermissible legal opinion); see also United States v. Curtis, 782 F.2d 593, 598-600 (6th Cir. 1996) (affirming exclusion of expert testimony and distinguishing Garber); United States v. Harris, 942 F.2d 1125, 1132 n.6 (7th Cir. 1991) (evidence “may include expert testimony about case law, to the extent that the defendant claims actual reliance on that case law. Case law on which the defendant did not in fact rely is irrelevant because only the defendant’s subjective belief is at issue.”); United States v. Ingredient Tech. Corp., 698 F.2d 88, 96-97 (2d Cir. 1983) (affirming exclusion of expert testimony and distinguishing Garber); United States v. Alessa, 3:19-cr-00010, 2021 WL 4498638, at *4 (D. Nev. Sept. 30, 2021) (evidence of a conflict in the law is irrelevant if Defendant was not aware of the conflict).

            Here, Mr. Read’s proposed testimony must be excluded because, reading between the lines (as we must because the disclosures do not reveal Mr. Read’s actual opinions), it seems likely that Mr. Read plans to testify about his understanding of the law. At best, Mr. Read’s opinion that certain offshore structures are permissible or even common is tantamount to testimony that, in his opinion, Defendant’s actions were legal. This is exactly the type of opinion that is prohibited under Ninth Circuit law because “‘[w]hen an expert undertakes to tell the jury what result to reach, this does not aid the jury in making a  decision, but rather attempts to substitute the expert’s judgment for the jury’s.’” United States v. Diaz, 876 F.3d 1194, 1197 (9th Cir. 2017) (quoting United States v. Duncan, 42 F.3d 97, 101 (2d Cir. 1994)). And any minor probative value the proffered testimony might have would be substantially outweighed by a danger of unfair prejudice, confusing the issues, and misleading the jury.

Saturday, August 6, 2022

Brockman, Defendant in Pending Major Tax Crimes Case, Dies (8/6/22)

As readers of this blog and other blogs and news in general know, the Government has been pursuing a major tax crimes case against Robert Brockman.  See One Big Fish Indicted and Lesser Big Fish Achieves NPA for Cooperation (Federal Tax Crimes Blog 10/16/20), here; and Brockman Found Competent to Stand Trial (Federal Tax Crimes Blog 5/24/22), here.  

Brockman died late yesterday, Friday, June 5.  See David Voreacos and Neil Weinberg, Robert Brockman, Software Developer Who Fought IRS, Dies at 81 (Bloomberg 8/6/22), here (highly recommended).   This moots the criminal case, but the civil side (involving both administrative investigations and civil cases) will continue.

One of the IRS civil initiatives that continues is a jeopardy assessment (meaning an assessment made for a tax normally requiring a notice of deficiency and opportunity to litigate in the Tax Court before assessment).  I discuss jeopardy assessments in my Federal Tax Procedure Book (2022 Practitioner Edition) beginning at p. 503. (The book may be downloaded at the links provided here.)  A jeopardy assessment permits a taxpayer assessed to bring an expedited proceeding in the district court, and Brockman has done so.  Brockman v. United States (S.D. Tex. Case No. 4:22-cv-00202), Courtlistener docket entries here.  According to the docket entries, oral argument was held on 8/3/22 (Dkt. #56 & 57) and the Court notified of the death on 8/6/22 (Dkt. #59).  (I could not find on PACER a similar notice to the Court, but the same Judge is assigned to both cases; the CourtListener docket entries for the criminal case are here.)

Brockman also has a case pending in the Tax Court.  Brockman v. Commissioner (T.C. Docket #764-22), here.  The documents in the case are not available on the U.S. Tax Court DAWSON web site.  All that has happened in that case is Brockman’s filing of the Petition, the IRS’ Answer, and Brockman’s Reply to Answer.

Wednesday, August 3, 2022

2022 Editions of Federal Tax Procedure Book Online at SSRN (8/3/22)

The Federal Tax Procedure Book Editions (Student and Practitioner) are available on SSRN for viewing or downloading.  The links for the editions are on the FTP Blog page in the right-hand column titled "Federal Tax Procedure Book (2022 Editions)," here,

Please note that related items are available on the pages linked in the right-hand column of this Blog.

Saturday, July 23, 2022

3rd Circuit Affirms Bedrosian FBAR Will Penalty Liability Based on His Counsel's Judicial Admissions as to Amount (7/23/22)

In Bedrosian v. United States, ___ F.4th ___,2022 U.S. App. LEXIS 20260 (3rd Cir. 7/22/22), CA3 here, and GS [to come], the Court sustained the district court’s application of the FBAR willful penalty. Given the history which I cover in earlier blogs, the holding on the issue of Bedrosian’s willfulness is not surprising. See Bedrosian on Remand -- Held Bedrosian Acted Recklessly and thus Subject to FBAR Civil Willful Penalty (Federal Tax Crimes Blog 12/6/20), here; and Bedrosian on Appeal; Interesting and Potentially Important Opinion on Jurisdiction in FBAR Penalty Cases (Federal Tax Crimes Blog 12/21/18; 1/10/19), here. The earlier Third Circuit opinion is Bedrosian v. United States, Dep't of Treasury, IRS, 912 F.3d 144 (3d Cir. 2018), 3rd Cir. here and GS here.

The one interesting aspect of the appeal is that the Court, although finding the Government’s proof was deficient as to the amount in the accounts subject to the penalty (thus precluding calculation of the penalty), Bedrosian through counsel made “judicial admissions” as to the amount that the Court of Appeals could invoke to supply the missing proof. The Court said (Slip Op. pp. 18-19, cleaned up): 

Still, even though the District Court did not address this argument, we may affirm on any basis supported by the record, even if it departs from the District Court’s rationale. And while arguably some of the statements Bedrosian made in the District Court proceedings are not judicial admissions, the statement made in opening argument acknowledged the true state of the facts. The concession that “there was about 2 million U.S. dollars” in the undisclosed account makes the IRS’s $975,789.17 penalty below the statutory maximum (50% of the account balance). We therefore affirm the District Court’s judgment on this alternative ground.

 JAT Comments:

Friday, July 15, 2022

Update Information from Kepke Prosecution (7/15/22)

I have posted before on the indictment of Carlos Kepke, a Houston tax attorney who, according to the allegations, assisted clients (including Brockman and Smith) set up offshore structures for tax evasion. See here. There is an excellent recent article on Kepke and various points in the trajectory (including sting operations) of his investigation Neil Weinberg & David Voreacos, The Sting That Snagged the Tax Lawyer to a Pair of Billionaires (BloombergLaw 7/12/22), here (subscription required). 

Much of the information in the article appears to be from the affidavit in support of the search warrant obtained for Kepke’s office/residence. That search warrant affidavit has been filed in Kepke’s criminal case. United States v. Kepke (N.D. Cal. No. 3:21-cr-00155). The docket entries and documents in the case are available on PACER (requires subscription and fee to download), but the docket entries and many documents are free on CourtListener. The CL docket entries are hereThe docket entry for the search warrant affidavit is 44, Attachment 3. The affidavit is here.

I found the affidavit to be great reading. I am particularly interested in the Kepke prosecution because I was formerly (1977-198) an associate in a law firm in Houston where Kepke was a partner. Kepke was doing the same type of stuff described in the affidavit then. I did not do anything with Kepke while with the firm except, on two occasions, to bring foreign tax questions to him because he was the firm’s foreign tax “expert.”  I found that on those occasions, his foreign tax advice was incorrect when I checked it further on my own. (On the most egregious occasion, Kepke who had a high billing rate (higher than his level of competence in my opinion based on two anecdotal instances) grossly inflated his claimed time spent by a multiple of 8 (Kepke always had huge monthly "billable" hours although not spending that much time at the firm); I convinced the billing partner to write off Kepke’s overstated claim of time (at exorbitant rate) spent giving me the incorrect advice.)  In any event, through some serendippity, I did review some documents from Kepke's practice regarding offshore strategies. He was doing then the same genre of structuring as described in the affidavits.

I won’t try to summarize all in the affidavit, but will just offer some items that I found particularly interesting that may be of interest to others:

Smith was identified through a bank disclosure in the DOJ Swiss Bank Program. Aff. 6-7, 13.)  DOJ Tax forwarded the Smith information to IRS CI, whereupon IRS CI recommended that the DOJ Tax authorize a grand jury investigation of Smith. (Aff. 7, ¶ 14). (Apparently there were Forms 211 filed for a whistleblower award with respect to Smith, but I don’t know the relationship of the Forms 211 information to the ultimate major recoveries from Smith.)  Kepke was implicated through the Smith investigation. 

Wednesday, July 13, 2022

11th Circuit Reverses Conviction for Ineffective Assistance of Counsel for Not Filing a Rule 29 Motion re Affirmative Act of Evasion (7/13/22; 7/14/22)

As I promised yesterday, I have added substantially below for the paragraphs after paragraph 1. I made these additions on 7/14/22 3:30 pm.

The Eleventh Circuit issued the opinion in Hesser v. United States, ___ F.4th ___, ____ (4th Cir. 7/13/22), CA11 here and GS here [to come]. I have not fully digested the opinion and am not prepared to offer meaningful, nuanced comments that will be useful to readers of the Federal Tax Crimes Blog. I will stew on the opinion a bit before commenting. My detailed comments will come later as addenda to this blog.

Let me try to summarize at a high level what happened. A jury long ago convicted Hesser of “tax fraud under 18 U.S.C. § 287 and 18 U.S.C. § 2 and one count of attempted tax evasion under 26 U.S.C. § 7201.”  (A quibble, I would not describe § 287, labeled in the Code “False, fictitious or fraudulent claims,” as tax fraud since that term is often applied to other tax crimes, such as even § 7201.)  On Rule 29 motion after the jury verdict, the district court sustained the convictions. On direct appeal, the 11th Cir. affirmed the convictions but remanded for further consideration of restitution. United States v. Hesser, 800 F.3d 1310 (11th Cir. 2015), GS here. Hessell then sought post-conviction relief under 28 USC § 2255 from the counts of conviction for "tax fraud" and tax evasion, alleging ineffective assistance of counsel. (Ineffective assistance of counsel is a common claim in § 2255 cases, although usually without merit.)  The district court granted the relief for the tax fraud counts but denied the relief for the tax evasion count.  Hesser appealed after obtaining a Certificate of Appealability from the 11th Circuit. On the § 2255 appeal, the 11th Circuit held that, on its view of the record, Hesser had been denied effective assistance of counsel because counsel failed to argue for Rule 29 judgment of acquittal at the close of the prosecution's case-in-chief on the basis that the prosecution had not adequately presented an element of the tax evasion crime – affirmative act of evasion. The 11th Circuit reasoned that, had counsel timely requested Rule 29 relief, the district court would have erred as a matter of law in not granting that relief on the affirmative act of evasion element. So counsel’s failure to request that relief establishes that counsel’s representation was not effective, thus requiring vacation of the conviction. Whew (just trying to pack the gravamen of the case into those words wears me out; there is a lot of nuance underlying that summary).

Monday, July 11, 2022

Teaching Tax Through Movies -- Loverly (7/11/22)

 I was in my former life an Adjunct Professor at University of Houston Law School where I taught courses in Tax Procedure and in Tax Crimes.  Often in the courses, I would mention My Cousin Vinny to illustrate (often by stretch) some point relevant to the classes.  

This offering caught my attention.  Alice G. Abreu (Temple), Teaching Tax Through Film Is Not As Crazy As It Sounds, 19 Pittsburgh Tax Rev. 183 (2022), here.  I was intrigued to see what Professor Abreu offered her students in the way of teaching tax law through the movies. I offer the relevant portions (pages 205-207 of the article (pages 24-26 of the pdf), footnotes omitted).

The films for this course were chosen for a breadth of genres and eras from the 1960s to last year. Some were animated; some were about superheroes; some were musicals. I aspired for every student to enjoy at least one film, and I hope they enjoyed many more. At the same time, an underlying need was to choose films that highlight specific tax topics. Although all films raise important tax issues, some are more clearly on point for the topics we covered.

Thursday, July 7, 2022

Article on Coinbase Tool for Identifying Owners of Cryptocurrency (7/7/22)

I am not steeped in the cryptocurrency craze.  Basically, I thought the attraction was the ability to do financial transactions in guaranteed secrecy, a feature particularly attractive to many such as money launderers and tax evaders.  I have had some posts on it.  See the Cryptocurrences tag here.  Still, I do not deal with cryptocurrencies in my practice or research.  So that is my caveat.

The following article caught my eye:  Sam Biddle, Cryptocurrency Titan Coinbase Providing "GEO Tracking Data" to ICE (The Intercept 6/29/22), here.  I thought some readers might be interested, so I pass it on.

Some excerpts:

            Coinbase Tracer allows clients, in both government and the private sector, to trace transactions through the blockchain, a distributed ledger of transactions integral to cryptocurrency use. While blockchain ledgers are typically public, the enormous volume of data stored therein can make following the money from spender to recipient beyond difficult, if not impossible, without the aid of software tools. Coinbase markets Tracer for use in both corporate compliance and law enforcement investigations, touting its ability to “investigate illicit activities including money laundering and terrorist financing” and “connect [cryptocurrency] addresses to real world entities.”

             According to the document, released via a Freedom of Information Act request, ICE is now able to track transactions made through nearly a dozen different digital currencies, including Bitcoin, Ether, and Tether. Analytic features include “Multi-hop link Analysis for incoming and outgoing funds,” granting ICE insight into transfers of these currencies, as well as “Transaction demixing and shielded transaction analysis” aimed at thwarting methods some crypto users take to launder their funds or camouflage their transactions. The contract also provides, provocatively, “Historical geo tracking data,” though it’s unclear what exactly this data consists of or from where it’s sourced. An email released through the FOIA request shows that Coinbase didn’t require ICE to agree to an End User License Agreement, standard legalese that imposes limits on what a customer can do with software.

        *  *  *  *

Thursday, June 30, 2022

6th Circuit Affirms Convictions and Holds that § 7206(2) Does Not Require Filing of the Fraudulent Return (6/30/22)

In United States v. VanDemark, ___ F.4th ___, (6th Cir. 6/30/22), CA6 here and GS here [to come], the Court affirmed the conviction of VanDemark, rejecting Vandermark’s appeals from denials of his motions for “acquittal on three of these counts and a new trial on all six counts." The six counts were (Slip Op. 4):

Counts One and Two dealt with the Supermarket’s 2013 and 2014 corporate returns. Counts Three and Four concerned Vandermark’s 2013 and 2014 personal returns. Count Five charged VanDemark with structuring payments, in violation of 31 U.S.C. § 5324(a)(3). And Count Six charged VanDemark with making false statements to federal agents, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1001.

VanDemark is described (Slip Op. 1) as “a millionaire car salesman who tried to hoodwink the IRS” and the owner of “the Used Car Supermarket, which sells cars from two lots in Amelia, Ohio.”  (I had never heard of Amelia, Ohio, so I just point to the Wikipedia entry for Amelia, here.)  Basically, he skimmed cash receipts in large amounts, in the time-honored way that many cash retail businesses do so, but customized to his particular business. Since this is a variation of garden variety tax evasion, I won’t go into the detail on the skimming.

Some interesting items:

1. How did he use the cash he skimmed? The Court says (Slip Op. 3):

             It turned out that VanDemark used most of this cash to pay the mortgage on his multimillion-dollar mansion. Wary of attracting the IRS’s attention, VanDemark asked an employee at his bank to confirm the IRS reporting threshold. She told VanDemark that the bank had to report “[a]nything over 10,000 in cash” to the IRS. (R. 73, Trial Tr. (Luck), PageID 1086-87.) So with this information in hand, VanDemark began to make cash payments toward his mortgage several times a month, keeping each payment below $10,000.

Note that the VanDemark’s employee made the inquiry to the bank, but the bank employee answered to VanDemark.  (No explanation of the missing link there.)

Wednesday, June 29, 2022

District Court Rejects Motions for Acquittal and New Trial on Tax Perjury Convictions (6/29/22)

In United States v. Thompson, No. 21-cr-00279-1, 2022 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 99469 (N.D. Ill. June 3, 2022), CL here, the court denied Thompson's motions for acquittal and, in the alternative, a new trial. Thompson had been convicted of "two counts of making a false statement with the intent to influence the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (the FDIC) and a mortgage lending business, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1014, and five counts of filing a false tax return, in [*2]  violation of 26 U.S.C. § 7206(1)."

I focus on certain tax aspects of the opinion, although I note that the court held (Slip Op. 28-38) that, for the § 1014 conviction in the Seventh Circuit, literal falsity was not required. 

Special Agents Assisting the Grand Jury Make Surprise Visit.

As often happens in a tax investigation, IRS CI Special Agents make a surprise early morning visit, which is often the target's or subject's first indication of the investigation, designed to catch him or her off-guard and, even when given the modified Miranda warnings, more amenable to an interview without counsel. Here is the court's description of that interview. In this case, the Special Agents were, respectively FDIC and IRS Special agents, and were assistants to a grand jury rather than agents conducting agency administrative investigations.

             At 8:15 a.m. on December 3, 2018, Evans [Special Agent with the FDIC Office of Inspector General] and Special Agent Jason Gibson (Gibson), [*13]  with IRS Criminal Investigation, visited Thompson at his house unannounced to interview him. Tr. 935:16-936:4, 944:12-19. Evans testified that, during the interview, they discussed Thompson's loan at Washington Federal, Evans and Gibson asked him questions about the loan, and Thompson provided information about the loan. Tr. 938:16-25. Specifically, Evans told Thompson that he was investigating Washington Federal, but he never told Thompson that Thompson himself was the subject of an investigation or that Thompson's taxes or tax deductions were the subject of an investigation. Tr. 950:23-951:8. At some point during or at the end of the interview, Gibson served Thompson with a grand jury subpoena that called for Thompson to appear and provide records, including but not limited to federal tax records and records used to prepare federal tax returns, loan and credit applications, records related to the purchase of Thompson's primary residence, his rental residence, and a third property located in Michigan. Tr. 939:1-22, 941:9-942:6, 948:19-22; GX 411.

I infer that, although not expressly stated, Thompson was at least a subject of the grand jury investigation. The opinion does not state whether he was given modified noncustodial Miranda warnings or whether Thompson made incriminating admissions during the interview. I have to assume that defense counsel made whatever he could from the described event.

 Denial of Good Faith Jury Instruction for Tax Perjury.

Saturday, June 25, 2022

Good Article on the Abusive Syndication Easement -- Legislative and Judicial Initiatives (6/25/22)

I recommend to readers this article:  Peter Elkind, The Tax Scam That Won’t Die (Propublica 6/17/22), here.  Key excerpts related to tax crimes:

Criminal investigations of industry practices are reportedly underway in three states. The crackdown’s most sensational case became public in February, when a federal grand jury in Atlanta indicted North Carolina developer Jack Fisher, a major syndication deal promoter and owner of Inland Capital Management. The 135-count indictment charged Fisher and six associates with participating in a conspiracy to sell $1.3 billion worth of illegal tax shelters. The charges against Fisher include wire fraud, conspiracy to defraud the U.S., money laundering and aiding in the filing of false tax returns. He has pleaded not guilty.

The indictment was backed by a string of damning statements attributed to Fisher, including several secretly recorded by an undercover government agent posing as an easement promoter.

The indictment, for example, charged that Fisher’s conservation deals relied on “fraudulent” and “grossly inflated” land appraisals, often valuing the easement properties at more than 10 times what he had paid for them just months earlier. It asserted that Fisher routinely “pre-determined” these valuations before any appraisal was actually performed, telling his two “hand-picked” appraisers what valuation he needed to generate the generous deductions he’d promised investors. In one recorded conversation described in the indictment, Fisher said one of the appraisers simply “puts down whatever we say.” In another, he said he always made sure easement valuations were high enough to make sure investors “can still get a good return on their money,” even if a later IRS audit reduced their charitable deduction.

The government also charged that Fisher frequently orchestrated the illegal backdating of checks and tax documents, allowing him to keep offering unsold stakes in his deals to investors as much as nine months after the year-end tax deadline, after the easement was already donated. In one recording, Fisher acknowledged rewarding partners at an accounting firm with free shares in an easement deal because “they participated in basically backdating all the documents.” After learning he was under investigation, according to the indictment, Fisher told one associate he could claim that backdated checks weren’t deposited until after the close of the tax year because they had been “lost” on someone’s desk.

Both appraisers, now among Fisher’s fellow defendants, have pleaded not guilty. One says on his website that his firm decided in mid-2019 to stop doing conservation easement work “until there is greater clarity from the courts on conservation easements.”

Tuesday, June 21, 2022

Supreme Court Grants Cert in Bittner v U.S. On FBAR Nonwillful Penalty Per Form or Per Account Issue (6/21/22; 6/22/22)

The Supreme Court today granted certiorari in the Bittner case to address the issue of whether the FBAR nonwillful penalty is per form or per account.  See Order List, p. 2, here.  I covered the key points at this stage in a prior blog.  Solicitor General Acquiesces in Bittner Petition for Cert on Issue of FBAR Nonwillful Penalty Per Form or Per Account (Federal Tax Crimes Blog 5/19/22), here.  So I will defer further comment now.

The docket entries where the briefings and other documents as they are filed may be retrieved in the following web pages:

  • Supreme Court here.
  • Scotusblog here (Note, as of this posting the cert granted entry has not been posted but should be posted by the end of the day.

Added 6/22/22 at 1:40 pm: 

Based on some of my current diversions on the APA and Chevron (see e.g., my blog Reply to Professor Hickman's Response to My PT Article (Federal Tax Procedure Blog 6/17/22; 6/22/22), here), it occurs to me that we may use some of the constructs in that discussion here to either clarify or further confuse.  Using that lingo:

1. What if the normal tools of statutory construction do not resolve whether the statute applies the nonwillful penalty per form or per account?  Included in the normal tools of statutory interpretation is what is often called Skidmore deference.  (Actually Skidmore is not deference at all because it requires that the court be persuaded by consideration of the agency interpretation; some therefore call it Skidmore respect or even the respect due for any position asserted by a litigant in litigation.)

2. That would almost certainly mean that the statute is ambiguous and that the interpretation might be subject to Chevron analysis if incorporated in a Chevron entitled rule (usually a regulation).  But I don’t think there is a Chevron entitled rule for this issue.

3. What then if the Supreme Court is in interpretive equipoise – neither interpretation is the best interpretation?  See Chevron and Equipoise In Statutory Interpretation (Federal Tax Procedure Blog 5/26/22), here; and Even More on Skidmore (Including Equipoise as to Interpretation)( Federal Tax Procedure Blog 7/7/19), here.  Should the Court just flip a coin when in equipoise or, more likely, have to affirm the Circuit Court because it could not conclude that the Circuit Court was wrong.  Of course, the advantage of a Supreme Court opinion in a systemic sense is not that the Supreme Court necessarily gets it right, but that it gets a uniform interpretation that all courts must apply.  So, a coin flip or equivalent (even if made mentally and not acknowledged in the opinion) might be OK.

If anyone has an answer to the conundrum, I would appreciate having it either by comment or separate email.

Wednesday, June 15, 2022

Court Seems to Hold that Tax Willfulness Good Faith Defense Requires the Defendant to Testify (6/15/22)

In Darst v. United States (M.D. Fla. Case No. 8:21-cv-1292-WFJ-JSS Order dated 6/13/22), CL here, Darst had long ago been convicted of tax obstruction and four counts of failure to  file tax returns.  Darst sought belatedly to overturn his convictions with a petition for writ coram nobis and motion to compel discovery of documents.  The Court denied petitioner’s motion on fairly standard grounds for this type of belated hail-mary gambit.

Rather than discuss the trajectory of the order, I focus on one part that caught my attention.  Darst sought to obtain discovery of certain statements of the IRS Commissioners that “that filing a tax return is voluntary.”  (See Slip Op. 2, 5 (“he had no duty to file a tax return because of the comments by the commissioners”), & 8-9.)  Here is the discussion of the issue (Slip Op. 8-9):

            A commissioner's comments about tax laws enacted by Congress do abrogate those laws. Even so, Petitioner quotes statements by commissioners from 1953 and 1990. Dkt. 20 at 2 n.3. If he contends that these statements caused him to misunderstand tax law and “because of [this] misunderstanding of the law, he had a good-faith belief that he was not violating any of the provisions of the tax laws,” Mr. Darst should have testified and presented his good-faith belief to the jury at trial. Cheek v. United States, 498 U.S. 192, 202 (1991).

I have previously written on the issue of the necessity for the defendant to testify if he asserts a good faith defense.  Making a Cheek Good Faith "Defense" Without Testifying (Federal Tax Crimes Blog 11/24/11), here.; and Cheek Good Faith - Must the Defendant Testify to Assert the Good Faith "Defense" (Federal Tax Crimes Blog 10/13/10), here.  I think the defendant usually cannot assert a credible good faith defense without testifying, but the tenor of the court’s last sentence is that a good faith defense requires the defendant to testify.  I am just not sure that is the case.

Tuesday, June 7, 2022

Third Circuit Sustains FBAR Willful Penalty (6/7/22)

In Collins v. United States, ___ F.4th ___, 2022 U.S. App. LEXIS 15467 (3rd Cir. 6/6/22), CA3 here and GS here, the Court affirmed the district court’s holding that Collins was liable for the willful FBAR penalty.  See United States v. Collins, 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 23260, 2021 WL 456962 (W.D. Pa. Feb. 8, 2021), GS here.

The steps in the Court of Appeals reasoning were:

1. Collins had unreported foreign accounts.

2. Collins joined OVDP, apparently in 2010.  After filing his “amended returns for 2002 to 2009, which yielded modest refunds stemming from large capital losses in 2002,” Collins opted out of OVDP, presumably hoping to pay less on opt-out.  The IRS audited and found that the amended returns failed to report PFIC income, which generated additional tax of “$71,324 for 2005, 2006, and 2007, plus penalties.”  Further, by opting out, Collins subjected himself to potential willful FBAR penalties rather than the mitigated miscellaneous penalty in OVDP.  The IRS proceeded to asset the FBAR penalty, although the IRS mitigated the penalty substantially under the IRM mitigation rules and agent discretion.

3. The District Court, on trial, “found a ‘decades-long course of conduct, omission and scienter’ by Collins in failing to disclose his foreign accounts” and held that the penalty determination (as mitigated) was “neither arbitrary and capricious nor an abuse of discretion.”

4. On the willful determination, The Court of Appeals articulated and applied the “civil standard of willfulness, which encompasses recklessness * * * * The dispositive question here is whether “Collins knew or (1) clearly ought to have known that (2) there was a grave risk that he was not complying with the reporting requirement, and if (3) he was in a position to find out for certain very easily.”  (Cleaned up.)

5. The Court of Appeals handily affirmed the district court’s holding that “Collins’s failure to disclose his foreign accounts was willful—not just reckless, but with ‘an actual intent to deceive.’”

Sunday, May 29, 2022

Government Suit to Enforce JDS to Offshore Promoter (5/29/22)

In United States v. Wessell (S.D. Fla. Case 22-cv-60988), Cl dkt entries here, the Government filed under seal a request for authorization of a John Doe Summons (“JDS”) to Kevin W. Wessell and related entities.  The Government had filed similar JDS’s in other jurisdictions for related summonsees.  The Government now files a petition to enforce the summons (JDS) issued to Wessell.  (See dkt entry 1, dated 5/24/22, here.)  The Government also filed a Brief in Support (dkt entry 3, dated 5/24/22, here (15 pages) with supporting documents including an IRS declaration here (124 pages) and certain other exhibits, including a privilege log of 482 pages).

The Brief summarizes the IRS’s concerns about Mr. Wessell as follows (pp. 1-2, footnotes omitted):

            On September 26, 2018, the IRS served a summons on Mr. Wessell. Exhibit 1 (Cincotta Decl.) ¶ 10. The purpose of the summons is to identify the clients of the Wessell Group, a sprawling enterprise operated by Mr. Wessell whose activities bear “the hallmarks of offshore tax evasion.” Id., Attachment C ¶ 27.1

            In particular, the Wessell Group creates foreign entities and bank accounts in tax havens such as the Cook Islands and Nevis in order to help United States taxpayers hide their money. Id. ¶¶ 19–49. The Wessell Group equips its customers with nominee directors and officers, and it even provides them with suggested avenues for circumventing court orders to repatriate funds. Id. ¶¶ 32–38. Based on extensive evidence outlined by the United States in a 2018 filing, this Court has already concluded that “there is a reasonable basis for believing” that the Wessell Group’s customers “may fail or may have failed to comply with the internal revenue laws,” which require taxpayers to report their worldwide income and pay associated taxes. See In re Tax Liabilities of John Does, No. 0:18-cv-62135- WPD, ECF No. 6 at 1 (S.D. Fla. Sept. 13, 2018).

            The IRS summons required Mr. Wessell to produce all documents related to United States taxpayers who, between January 1, 2012 and December 31, 2017, used the Wessell Group to “establish, maintain, operate, or control: any foreign financial account or other asset; any foreign corporation, company, trust, foundation, or other legal entity; or any foreign or domestic financial account or other asset in the name of a foreign entity.” Exhibit 1 (Cincotta Decl.) ¶ 11 & Attachment D. The deadline for compliance was October 26, 2018. Id. ¶ 9.

 Once the JDS was issued, the concern addressed in the petition to enforce is whether Wessell properly complied with the summons.  The Government has concerned about whether Wessell produced the summonsed records or properly accounted for the summonsed records in a privilege log.  Suffice it to say that the number of potential documents within the scope of the summons is quite large.

Things that caught my attention include the following:

Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Brockman Found Competent to Stand Trial (5/24/22)

In the gorilla of tax crimes cases, United States v. Brockman (S.D. Tex. Crim  4:21-CR-9), CL Docket Entries here, the Court yesterday denied Brockman’s attempt to avoid trial by feigning, so the Court found, incompetence.  The Memorandum Opinion and Order (“Order”) so holding is here (Dkt # 263).  The conclusion (pp. 41-42) is:

IV. CONCLUSION

The Court finds that the Government has met its burden of establishing that Defendant Robert T. Brockman is competent to stand trial. In so finding, the Court is very mindful that Brockman is an elderly person who has Parkinson’s Disease, which is a neurodegenerative disorder, and has suffered from some degree of cognitive impairment. However, the evidence before the Court shows that Brockman is also an extremely intelligent person with both a high cognitive reserve and history of malingering for secondary gain. The Government has introduced compelling evidence showing that Brockman exaggerated his cognitive symptoms when he was being examined by medical professionals in the past; and Brockman’s performance on validity tests—some of them administered by his own neuropsychological expert—indicates that he continues to exaggerate impairment. Accordingly, the Court finds Defendant Robert T. Brockman competent to stand trial.

With this diversion behind for now, the case can proceed through other pretrial steps (including, certainly, further diversions for a defendant with the deepest of pockets to afford such diversions to delay or avoid justice) and go to trial.

I do not further discuss the Order because there are no exceptional criminal tax issues in the Order.  Just a guy trying to avoid trial as if he were a fugitive from justice.

Saturday, May 21, 2022

Unposting of Blog Entry (5/21/22)

Earlier, I posted a blog entry on the Federal Tax Crimes Blog that should have been posted on the Federal Tax Procedure Blog.  I have now moved that blog entry to the Federal Tax Procedure Blog.  The blog entry is now Adjudications of Agency Actions and the Right to Jury Trial (Federal Tax Procedure Blog 5/21/22), here.  Sorry to readers for that mistake.