Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Judge Finds Ambassador's Tax Shelter Transactions Bullshit (Actually Worse Than That) (5/19/10)

I have previously noted here that a Claims Court judge, in effect, held that a tax shelter transaction was bullshit. Another case does the same thing, although it does not exactly use the BS word. Judge F. Dennis Saylor, District Judge for Massachusetts, has handed down a whopping – both in length and effect on the taxpayers – opinion in Fidelity International Currency Advisor A Fund, LLC v. United States (4:05-cv-40151), a TEFRA proceeding involving Son-of-Boss tax shelters. The taxpayers involved (when the drill down on the partnerships is made) were Richard and Maureen Egan. Richard Egan was former Ambassador to Ireland. He and his wife made too much money. He and his wife did not like to pay tax. They entered phony transactions to shelter large gains.  They did not pay the tax. They tried to hide their activity from the IRS.  They were caught.  His estate and his wife will have to pay the tax, interest on the tax, apparently the accuracy related penalties, and interest on the accuracy related penalties. (I would think that, given the strength of the judge's view of the taxpayers' misbehavior, the Government / IRS might be sorely tempted to assert the civil fraud penalty when the action moves to the taxpayer level; note that if fraud was involved as the court held and the partnership is a sham, everything could drill down to the taxpayers' returns and the civil statute would be open indefinitely (see prior posts here and here); I haven't thought this through yet, so maybe someone will comment on it.)

The opinion is 357 pages long as issued by the court. The only copy of the opinion that I have is a whopping scanned pdf the original which is large, not easy to read and is not searchable. Hence, I offer up here an OCR'd version that I hope has been reasonably OCR'd (I have not tried to proof read it; note that when you click, the document will come up in google docs which I find difficult to work with; I recommend that you download the document (click on top of screen in Google Docs) and view it in regular pdf format which is both bookmarked and searchable.).

I won't try to summarize the opinion, because the Court does that for us as follows:

A. Summary of Facts

Richard J. Egan was one of the founders of EMC Corporation, a large, publicly-traded manufacturer of computer storage devices. By the year 2000. Richard Egan and his wife Maureen had amassed enormous personal wealth, the great majority of which was in the form of EMC stock.

The Egans were highly sophisticated taxpayers; Richard Egan was one of the most successful businessmen in the history of the United States. His personal and family financial affairs, including the management of his wealth and the payment of his taxes, occupied an entire organization of twenty or so employees, which included his three sons, at least two certified public accountants, and a variety of other business and financial specialists. Richard and Maureen Egan expressly delegated power over their tax affairs to their son Michael, and explicitly and implicitly delegated authority for those matters throughout the family organization.

With the Egans' wealth and income came potentially large tax liabilities. As of 2000, the Egans beneficially owned approximately 25 million shares of EMC stock. At its peak in September 2000, EMC shares traded at more than $100 per share. Because the Egans' basis in those shares was extremely small -- approximately two cents per share -- the sale of any substantial portion of that stock would have produced huge capital gains, subject to a long-term capital gains tax at a rate of 20%.

In addition, the Egans owned non-qualified options to purchase more than 8 million shares of EMC stock at very low strike prices. The exercise of those options would generate large amounts of ordinary income, subject to taxes at a marginal rate that approached 40%.

In early 2000, Richard Egan and his son Michael became interested in investing in tax shelters to avoid taxes on the capital gains and ordinary income that was likely to result from the sale of EMC stock and the exercise of the options. With the assistance of an attorney from Chicago named Stephanie Denby, the Egans interviewed several tax shelter promoters in May 2000. They eventually selected the large international accounting firm KPMG. Through KPMG, the Egans were introduced to a small firm called Helios, which (with a related company called Diversified Group International, or DGI) had designed a highly complex tax shelter transaction that it was marketing to wealthy individuals.

The original tax shelter scheme involved the contribution of both paired offsetting options (in large notional amounts) and appreciated assets (such as EMC stock) to an entity taxed as a partnership. In simplified terms, the promoters claimed that the purchased option was an asset, but that the sold option was not a liability; the taxpayer thus supposedly contributed assets to the partnership entity, but not liabilities, creating a grossly inflated basis in his interest in the entity. The taxpayer's interest would then be sold, and the taxpayer would claim that the inflated basis (from the contribution of the options) "eliminated" any gain from the disposition of the stock or other assets. Variations of the scheme were designed to create artificial losses to offset ordinary income.

A significant feature of the scheme was the fact that four major law firms -- including Proskauer Rose and Brown & Wood, eventually Sidley Austin Brown & Wood -- had been recruited by the promoters to provide favorable opinion letters. The taxpayers were told in advance that they could choose one of the four firms for their favorable opinion. The opinion letters were in essence intended to serve as insurance against tax penalties should the IRS ever discover the transactions, and thus to induce investors to invest in the tax shelters.

By early August 2000, the Egans were on the brink of engaging in a transaction with KPMG and DGI/Helios that was designed to eliminate up to $200 million in capital gains by artificially inflating basis, and were considering a follow-up transaction designed to create up to $200 million in artificial losses to offset ordinary income.

In August 2000, the IRS issued Notice 2000-44. That notice directly attacked the types of tax shelter schemes that the Egans were about to enter into, and stated that the IRS would not recognize transactions of the type described in the Notice.

In the wake of Notice 2000-44, the promoters and their law firms concluded that it was too risky to proceed with the ordinary income portion of the scheme in its present form. The promoters and the Egans nonetheless pressed forward with the capital gains strategy, with a transaction designed to create $160 million in artificial basis. The strategy involved an orchestrated series of steps that were principally conducted through Fidelity High Tech Advisor A Fund, LLC. The essential steps of the transaction, other than the sale of the stock, were completed by early 2001. Unfortunately for the Egans, however, the price of EMC stock declined, to the point where they had created a purported "basis" of $160 million without sufficient offsetting assets to take advantage of it. The Egans accordingly decided to "stuff" additional low-basis stock into Fidelity High Tech in an effort to use the artificial basis they had created.

In the meantime, the Egans continued to speak with the promoters about a possible tax shelter strategy for ordinary income from the exercise of the options. By early 2001, the promoters had devised a new variation of the strategy that they called the "Financial Derivatives Investment Strategy," or FDIS. The FDIS strategy, among other things, generated paper "losses" for taxpayers by assigning any offsetting "gains" offshore -- to one of two Irish confederates of the tax promoters (neither of whom, of course, filed U.S. tax returns).

The Egans exercised their stock options at various points in 2001, resulting in a gain of $162.9 million. By early October 2001, the Egans had decided to use the FDIS strategy to shelter that income from taxes. Like the prior transaction, the strategy involved an orchestrated series of steps, this time through Fidelity International Currency Advisor A Fund, LLC. The various steps of the transaction were completed by the end of 2001.

The IRS, however, continued its efforts to crack down on tax shelters. In June 2002 -- before the Egans had filed their individual tax return for the year 2001 -- the IRS adopted a temporary regulation that required the filing of a disclosure statement if a taxpayer had participated in certain tax shelter transactions. KPMG, which was preparing the Egans' return, concluded that such a disclosure statement was required with the Egans' return. Rather than make the disclosure, however, the Egans fired KPMG and hired an accountant at another law firm -- who was also a confederate of the promoters -- to sign their return.

Around the same time, and as promised by the promoters, the Egans received opinion letters from Proskauer Rose (as to the Fidelity High Tech transaction) and Sidley Austin (as to the Fidelity International transaction) purporting to opine that it was "more likely than not" that the proposed tax treatment would be upheld. The Egans also received a separate letter from Proskauer Rose opining that the disclosure insisted upon by KPMG was not required.

The Fidelity International transaction resulted in the creation of artificial "losses" of $158.6 million in 2001, which the Egans used to offset the ordinary income of $162.9 million from the option exercise on their 2001 income tax return that year. The disclosure statement that was prepared by KPMG, and never filed, stated that "expected reduction in federal income tax liability" from the Fidelity International transaction was $65.5 million. The Egans also claimed a loss of $1.7 million from Fidelity International on their 2002 tax return.

The Egans sold all of the stock in Fidelity High Tech in 2002, for $76.2 million in proceeds. The real basis for that stock was $8.7 million; the inflated claimed basis was more than $163 million. Instead of reporting a capital gain of $67.4 million from the sale of that stock for 2002, the Egans reported a huge loss.

The IRS eventually learned of the scheme, and disallowed the treatment of the transaction on the various partnership returns on multiple grounds.

B. Summary of Legal Conclusions

In substance, plaintiffs Fidelity High Tech and Fidelity International seek to overturn the various adjustments made by the IRS to items on the partnership tax returns. The principal argument advanced by the government in response is premised on the economic substance doctrine, sometimes referred to as the sham transaction doctrine.

A fundamental principle of tax law is that transactions without economic substance, or sham transactions, will not be recognized. The precise contours of the economic substance doctrine have not been set, and vary from circuit to circuit. Nonetheless, it is clear that courts are required to consider the substance of a transaction, rather than its mere form, in considering the tax effect to be given to it. In making that determination, courts normally are required to consider two aspects of a transaction: the subjective purpose of the taxpayer (that is, whether the taxpayer actually had a non-tax business purpose for entering into the transaction) and the objective purpose of the transaction (that is, whether the transaction, objectively viewed, had a reasonable possibility of profit or other business benefit).

Here, the Egans claim that the principal purpose of the transactions, viewed objectively, was to serve as a hedge: to mitigate the risk of a decline in the price of EMC stock (in the case of the Fidelity High Tech transaction) or to mitigate the risk of fluctuating interest rates or foreign currency values (in the case of the Fidelity International transaction). From an objective standpoint, however, the transactions were entirely irrational; they were unnecessarily and extravagantly expensive, and did not hedge the purported risks effectively (or at all). The Egans also appear to claim that the transactions were entered into for profit. If so, they were also irrational for that purpose; the transactions were designed and intended to lose money, and in fact did so.

The objective features of the transactions were irrational because, of course, the Egans subjectively had no actual business purpose for entering into them. None of the participants in these complex transactions believed that they were real business transactions, with any purpose other than tax avoidance. Indeed, it is highly doubtful that any participant believed, even for a minute, that the transactions would withstand legal scrutiny if discovered. No one with the slightest understanding of the tax laws could reasonably believe that $160 million in basis could be created cut of thin air, or that $160 million in income could be made to vanish in a puff of smoke. In accordance with that belief, the Egans and their advisors went to great lengths to try to ensure that the IRS would never find out about the transactions -- including, among other things, the filing of partnership and individual tax returns with multiple false and misleading entries.

The Egans contend that their subjective intentions are irrelevant. In substance, they contend that as long as the transactions were not fictitious -- that is, as long as the entities existed, the money was transferred, and the options were purchased and sold -- the economic substance doctrine does not apply. But the transactions at issue were "real" only in the sense that a performance by actors on stage is "real." The actors are real human beings, and the stage sets are made of real wood and real paint. But the actors are reading from a script. No one watching "Macbeth" believes that they are witnessing the murder of a Scottish king, and the actors do not believe it either. Here, too, the participants were simply following a script -- a script that had little or no connection to any underlying business or economic reality.

The Egans also make a number of technical arguments, all of which assume that the transactions were real and should be respected. The linchpin of the scheme from a technical standpoint was a potential anomaly in the tax code: under a line of cases interpreting Section 752, a purchased option is an asset, but a sold option is only a contingent liability. The Egans thus take the position that a taxpayer can purchase offsetting options and contribute them to a partnership entity, and thereby contribute an asset but not a liability. From there, it is but a few steps to use the "asset" to inflate the basis of the partner's interest in the entity. If the tax system depended entirely on form over substance, the argument might well pass muster.

But tax liabilities are not so easy to dodge. It would be absurd to consider offsetting options -- purchased and sold at the same time, and with the same counterparties -- as separate items, and to act as if the one item existed and the other did not. That is particularly true where (as here) the individual option positions were gigantic, and might bankrupt the taxpayer or the options dealer if no offset were in place.

The Egans also point to the longstanding principle that it is perfectly legitimate to arrange one's affairs so as to pay as low a tax bill as possible. That assertion is true, as far as it goes. It is entirely appropriate, for example, for a taxpayer to decide to buy a house rather than to rent, in order to take advantage of the many tax advantages of home ownership. A taxpayer may buy a house with a mortgage in order to take advantage of the deductibility of mortgage interest. But a taxpayer cannot undertake phony or meaningless transactions and claim a tax advantage; he cannot, for example, lend money to himself, pay "interest" on the loan, and claim the interest deduction. If the tax laws permitted such a result, they would be nonsensical, and anyone who paid taxes would be a fool. The tax laws are neither so simple nor so easily evaded.

Finally, the Egans claim that they relied in good faith on formal legal opinions issued by Proskauer Rose and Sidley Austin, two highly prominent law firms. It is true that both firms issued opinions to the Egans. And it is true that both firms opined that it was more likely than not that their tax treatment of the transactions would be upheld.

But those opinions, too, were just additional acts of stagecraft. The lawyers were not in the slightest rendering independent advice; the promoters of the tax shelters had arranged favorable opinions from those firms well in advance, and as part of their marketing strategy. Indeed, the promoters (not the Egans) paid the law firms' fees. More fundamentally, the opinions were themselves fraudulent: they were premised on purported "facts" that the Egans and the law firms knew were false, and reached conclusions that everyone involved knew could not possibly be correct. The opinions had but one purpose: to serve as a form of insurance against the imposition of penalties if the transactions were ever to come to light.

The claim of good faith reliance on counsel is thus wholly without merit. The Egans knew that the opinion letters were simply part of the tax shelter scheme, and did not for a moment believe that they were receiving independent legal advice after a full disclosure of all underlying facts.

In short, the Fidelity High Tech and Fidelity International transactions were complete shams, without any economic substance of any kind. For that reason, and for the other reasons set forth below, the transactions should not be recognized, and the adjustments made by the IRS will be upheld.


  1. Good Post Jack. I agree the civil fraud penalty should apply here. Perhaps someone should tip off the IRS attorneys dealing with the case. I wonder why, given the outrageous conduct of the Egans, particularly Michael Egan, did this case not go criminal? The Egans' lawyer, Ms. Stephanie Denby, would appear to have engaged in criminal conduct too, at least based on the e-mail extracts contained in the opinion. I have two related discussion topics:
    (i) Mr. Egan was the highest US official to Ireland, a tax haven. What sort of message does this send when the IRS is trying to stamp out tax havens? The Irish authorities are reviewing the case for breaches of Irish law, I understand, particularly by the shill foreign partner, Mr. Samuel Mahoney. Without criminal prosecution we show weakness on that front, I humbly suggest. High office demands high responsibility, I also suggest.
    (ii) What about the thousands of hours wasted by this unproductive activity, including 44 trial days in the Boston Federal District Court. Surely these smart people could have put their time to better use? But to that they must be disincentivized to pursue tax planning of this kind.

    Thoughts anyone?

  2. Anyone who wants to read the full opinion, follow this link:

  3. Thanks for the link to the Tax Prof Blog where the opinion can be downloaded. However, the copy there is very large, is not bookmarked and is not searchable. Viewing is probably personal preference, but I much prefer the actual pdf version which can be obtained by clicking the link above which opens the opinion in Google Docs, which can then be downloaded as a pdf file (relatively small, with bookmarks and searchable).

  4. My goodness, such harsh rhetoric and perhaps some Monday morning quarterbacking? I certainly wish someone could explain to me why these transactions were so egregious given the case law at the time? ACM (the presumed seminal case at the time) held the transaction lacked economic substance because in the preceding 10 year period interest rates never moved enough for the trades to make a profit (presuming the past was an indicator of the future) and no consideration was given to transaction costs, here, some of the trades netted millions in profit. In fact at the time another case BOCA which was essentially the ACM transaction prevailed initially and was overturned on appeal. What about Salina a tax court case essentially of offsetting positions (like ACM) wherein the court held the transaction had economic substance but the repos were liabilities under Section 752. Note at the time none of the cases analyzed transaction costs related to tax structuring. In fact, Compaq and IES specifically held the tax costs were not to be considered. What about the recent Sala case, $60 million of tax benefits derived from a transaction that could not have been profitable after fees, is that judge stupid, a fraud or a criminal? In fact even Jade held the transaction lacked economic substance because the fees were 9 times greater than potential profits and such facts were not even close to evident here. In fact I always come back to my favorite, Fulcrum Financial Partners (which when one ferrets thorough the maze of ownership structure you end up at Ted Turner). Fulcrum is a public case, all the information was available in 1999, in this case Ted entered into completely offsetting Treasury Repo transactions which had a potential profit of $146,000 (not considering any fees in this massive $140 million transaction). The DOJ gave Ted an $80 million deduction on this transaction, approximately 2/3 of the hoped for tax benefits yet the Egan’s should suffer civil fraud charges? Who could have known? Of course, this whole string of cases was made possible by the IRS when they imputed $1 million of income to a southern farmer on an option payment claiming the short obligation was not a liability in Helmer.

  5. So according to Anonymous, many sounds that resemble a bark make a dog! Isn't this the whole problem with the advisors (some of whom has since gone to visit Fed Med). Paddy C Boston, and Jack in their posts hit the nails on their heads. Reading the DC opinion, it is clear that the Egans did not think their scheme worked. Why else would they go to such (illegal) extremes to hide what they were doing? This, I believe, is the court came down as hard as it did. I agree that there is civil fraud and potential criminal liability here.

  6. Dudes you make me laugh, pretending the fantasy is reality. I know most don’t care and rather take the easy road but someone explain to me how in the world Compaq had economic substance but the Egans’ did not? In Compaq, the transaction lasted almost 2 hours wherein Compaq bought and sold (with a private party) almost $1 Billion of Foreign Bank stock to obtain foreign tax credits, no risk but a huge tax reward. And given Compaq what exactly did the Egan’s do that was “illegal”? Keep in mind a taxpayer is permitted to take a tax position on a tax return that is non frivolous, i.e. 10% chance of success in a court of law all the way to the SCT, is that “illegal”? Further, this Judge seems to suggest that because the IRS issued a notice saying the transaction did not work such transaction was “illegal”. Of course heretofore, that has never been the law and the Notice is meaningless vis a vi whether the transaction works from a tax perspective. Further, most of the tax opinions for this genre of shelters state that if the IRS audits the transaction it is very likely the deduction will be disallowed by the IRS, does that make it a “illegal”? And by the way, there are thousands of ways to effectively loan money to yourself and obtain massive tax benefits especially in circumstances where NOL or Cap Loss or FTC carryovers exist.

  7. After posting my earlier comment, I ran across the attached outline written by Chad Muller, a premier tax crimes attorney in San Antonio, who gave me permission to provide it to readers of this blog. The article is titled The Presentation of Questionable Testimony and deals with a facet of the discussion in the comments to this blog.

    The link is:

    I suppose readers will have to copy the URL and post it into their web browser.

    Jack Townsend

  8. There was just an amended finding issued on October 6, which embarassignly was my first notice of the case. The one thing that impressed me about the case was the extent they went into the details of return preparation.

  9. I saw the amended opinion today but it was not easy from the one I saw to discern what was changed.

    The brief description that came with the revised opinion I saw said that the changes "included more specific information on the applicability of accuracy-related penalties under section 6662."

    When (and if) I have time to try to compare the differences, I will post them if I think they would be of interest to the readers.


    I extracted the diffenence in the conclusion in the above post. Interestingly there was subsequent decision Krause V US on whether penalties are a partnership item. I found that the taxpayer in Krause was a Texas lottery commissioner

  11. I had already blogged the amended opinion:

    I found Peter Reilly's discussion on this link in the immediate prior comment to be very interesting and recommend it to readers.


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