Friday, July 23, 2021

ABA Tax Section Recommendation to IRS for Priority Guidance to Disavow Application of WSLA and Further Comments Re Same (7/23/21)

I have written several times on the Wartime Suspension of Limitations Act (“WSLA”), 18 U.S.C. § 3287, here.  In part relevant to tax crimes, the WSLA suspends “the running of any statute of limitations applicable to any offense involving fraud or attempted fraud against the United States or any agency thereof in any manner, whether by conspiracy or not.”  (Cleaned up.) The statute of limitations is suspended from the date of the “specific authorization for the use of the Armed Forces until 5 years after the termination of hostilities as proclaimed by a Presidential proclamation, with notice to Congress, or by a concurrent resolution of Congress.”  (Cleaned up.)

Where the WSLA is applicable, there are several authorizations that might establish the starting point for the suspensions.  Authorizations that have never been revoked were passed in 2001 and 2002 related to the activity after the 9/11 event.  So, for purposes of this discussion, I assume that the WSLA authorizes tax crimes prosecutions with the general 6-year statute of limitations for conduct back to 1995 or 1996 and the statute continues until 5 years after the authorizations are terminated.

Caveat:  There could be even earlier starting dates under the WSLA for earlier authorizations not yet revoked:  (1) a 1991 authorization incident to the Gulf “War”; and (2) a 1957 authorization (although it might not meet the “specific authorization” required by the WSLA.  Matthew Waxman, Remembering Eisenhower’s Middle East Force Resolution (LawFare 3/9/19), here.  The House has recently passed resolutions to revoke these authorizations.  See Karoun Demirjian, House votes to repeal military authorizations dating to Gulf War, Cold War (WAPO 6/29/21), here.

I have stated my belief that tax evasion under § 7201 is within the literal language of the WSLA.  That would mean also that the offense conspiracy to commit tax evasion would likely be within the literal language of the WSLA.  (The defraud conspiracy, in my view, would not be within the WSLA because the defraud conspiracy for some strange reason does not require fraud per Hammerschmidt v. United States, 265 U.S. 182, 188 (1924); see John A. Townsend, Tax Obstruction Crimes: Is Making the IRS's Job Harder Enough, 9 Hous. Bus. & Tax. L.J. 255 (2009), here; I think (perhaps speculation) that if the crime’s elements do not include fraud in the traditional sense of the term (defraud conspiracy does not), the WSLA would not apply.)

However, for some reason as yet unnanounced, at least in recent memory, DOJ Tax has asserted only the traditional six-year tax crime statute of limitations.  The CTM’s discussion of statutes of limitations does not even mention the WSLA.  DOJ CTM 7.00 STATUTE OF LIMITATIONS, here.  So how long DOJ Tax will forebear asserting the WSLA is open.  Further, in cases where the defendant challenges the normal statute of limitations, a court might sua sponte invoke the WSLA to deny the challenges.

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Court Reverses TOP Offset Against Social Security Payments That Exceed Court's Restitution Schedule for Payments (7/21/210

In United States v. Taylor, No. CrimAction 06-658-03, 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 134638 (E.D. Pa. July 20, 2021), CL here, the Court found that the Treasury Offset Program (“TOP”) collection, via offset, of criminal restitution from Social Security Benefits was not permitted under the Court’s schedule for restitution ($100 per year) and ordered return of the collections in excess of the Court’s restitution schedule.

Key points of the holding:

1. In January 2008, Taylor was convicted of the defraud / Klein conspiracy In ordering restitution in the earlier criminal case, the Court determined restitution was $3,300,000 but that Taylor could pay not more than $100 per year and scheduled that she pay that amount per year.  

2. Taylor thereafter began receiving Social Security monthly payments.

3. The Federal Government has a Treasury Offset Program (“TOP”) permitting the Government to collect against debts a person owes to the Government by offsetting payments the Government owes to the debtor.  The Court’s discussion of the TOP program is good, so I quote it (Slip Op. pp. 5-6; cleaned up):

TOP is a federal program authorized by the Debt Collection Act of 1982, as amended by the Debt Collection Improvement Act of 1996, which permits the Treasury Department to collect delinquent debts owed to federal agencies. See 31 U.S.C. § 3716. Under TOP Congress has subjected to offset all funds payable by the United States,’ § 3701(a)(1), to an individual who owes certain delinquent federal debts. The contours of TOP program have been described in the following terms: 

The practice of withholding federal payment in satisfaction of a debt is known as an administrative offset.” The Debt Collection Improvement Act of 1982, 31 U.S.C. §§ 3701 et seq., authorizes the Treasury Department “to collect non-tax debts by withholding funds paid out by other federal agencies.” Pursuant to the TOP, any federal agency with a claim against the debtor, after notifying the debtor that the debt is subject to administrative offset and providing an opportunity to dispute the debt or make arrangements to pay it, may collect the debt by administrative offset. In order to do so, the creditor agency must certify to Treasury that the debt is eligible for collection by offset and that all due process protections have been met. If properly certified, the Treasury Department must administratively offset the debt. 

Under TOP, Social Security benefits are eligible for offset pursuant to the Debt [*6] Collection Improvement Act. n6  
   n6 An offset to a person’s Social Security benefits, however, cannot exceed 15% of the monthly covered benefit payment. 31 C.F.R. § 285.4(e).

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Judge Holmes Weighs (At Length) Against Taxpayers Involved in Complex Bullshit Tax Shelters; Fraud Penalties Approved (7/14/21; 7/15/21)

Back in my younger years in the practice of tax law, I heard something like an aphorism or at least a pithy statement meant to suggest some truth that the difference between a doctor and a lawyer cheating on their taxes is that the doctor will file a false return underreporting tax liability (a felony) whereas the lawyer will file no return (generally a misdemeanor).  While there may be some truth in the statement, there is probably not as much truth as those acting on it by failing to file would like to hope.

I was reminded of that statement in today’s opinion in Ernest S. Ryder & Associates, Inc., APLC. v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2021-88, here.  The opinion. 191 pages long and with a table of contents to help one navigate the opinion, is written by Judge Holmes who weighs in with his usual gusto in writing.

Here is the opening (Slip Op. pp.  4-5,  footnotes omitted):

Ryder & Associates, Inc., APLC (R&A), marketed six tax-reduction strategies that produced over $31 million in revenue between 2003 and 2011. The firm’s fixed costs were low, and its out-of-pocket expenses not very large. Yet year after year it paid no income tax. Its revenue flowed instead into 560 accounts and into Ryder Law Corporation, a related S corporation.  It flowed into more than 1,100 ESOPs,  other S corporations, LLCs, and other passthroughs. It flowed into ranches in Arizona, and it flowed into other ranches in New Mexico. And then it mostly seemed to pool in places where it would benefit Ernest S. Ryder and his wife Patricia, who received more than $15 million in distributions between 2002 and 2011 but paid only $31,000 in income tax during the years at issue.

The lead petitioner is a corporation, but the case is consolidated with other cases.  The principal actor in the drama, Ryder, was an accomplished tax lawyer, with an LLM from NYU Law School.  His entry into the law practice in the 1970s was particularly auspicious as noted by Judge Holmes (Slip Op. pp. 6-7): 

His timing was fortunate--he was at the stem-cell stage of his career the year that Congress enacted the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA). When there’s an avulsive change in the law like ERISA, young lawyers can develop valuable expertise in an environment uncluttered with more senior competitors.

Knowledgeable associates in a fast-growing field are a hot commodity, and in 1975 Ryder was hired away by Harrigan, Ruff & Osborne to help that firm’s clients get their retirement plans qualified under the new law. “[T]hat’s when my career really took a turn,” Ryder explained, and he was well on his way to becoming an expert in qualified retirement plans.

Judge Holmes recounts Ryder's trajectory thereafter to include (Split Op. 8 & 9, footnotes omitted):

The aggressiveness of Ryder’s tax-reduction strategies seems to have caused some tension with his partners at Ruff Ryder, and he was asked to leave the firm sometime in 1995. Ruff Ryder’s entire pension department and its profit-sharing clients left with him. With ample experience and a fully staffed pension practice, Ryder decided to open up his own firm in early 1996. And here begins the Ryders’ tax problems. R&A is a professional law corporation and has always been taxed as a C corporation. Ryder has owned 100%, and has acted as president, of R&A since its creation. We find that Ryder also provided 100% of his legal services to clients through R&A during the years at issue. 

Despite its success and longevity, R&A reported zero taxable income from 2002 through 2011. The Ryders also reported minimal taxable income on their individual returns for those years.

I can't help but point out the catchy firm name "Ruff Ryder."

Second Circuit Continues the Strong Consensus Rejecting the Argument that FINCen Regulations Under Pre-2004 Law Limit the Maximum Willful Penalty Prescribed under the 2004 Statutory Amendment (7/14/21)

In United States v. Kahn, ___ F.3d ___, 2021 U.S. App. LEXIS 20622 (2d Cir. 7/13/21), here, the Court held, consistent with the trend of cases after two district court burps, that the FBAR willful penalty in 31 USC § 5321(a)(5), here, as amended in 2004 to increase the maximum amount of the penalty, is not limited by the FINCen’s failure to update the underlying regulations which, consistent with pre-2004 law, capped the willful penalty at $100,000.  Readers of this blog should already be aware of the issue and the trend in the cases.  The majority opinion, while lengthy, does not break new ground in analysis of the issue, so I won’t address the majority opinion further, other than to say that, as of today, it is the definitive opinion, collecting and discussing the key issues and key cases, so it should be a starting point for those wanting to get into the issue as of now.

Monday, July 5, 2021

District Court Holds that Delinquent Payment and Filing After CI Agent Contact Is Admissible in Criminal Case (7/5/21)

In United States v. Thrush, 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 118742 (E.D. Mich. 6/25/21), CL here, “Thrush was indicted on multiple counts of willfully failing to pay over payroll taxes and to file tax returns.”  After being contacted by the CI agent, Thrush “began making payments on his tax liability” and filed tax returns.  In the ensuing criminal case, the Government moved in limine “to exclude evidence of Defendant's delinquent tax payments and returns.”  

The Court held that, under Sixth Circuit precedent, Thrush could introduce the evidence.  After reviewing the case authority, the Court concluded (pp. 9-10):

Defendant's version of events, if believed, would allow a reasonable jury to infer that his failure to pay taxes and file tax returns was the result of ignorance, rather than willfulness. Accordingly, Defendant's [*10]  delinquent filings, if offered in conjunction with the assertions discussed above, would be probative of his mental state during the period in question.

In comparison, evidence of the delinquent filings poses only a modest risk of misleading the jury. The evidence will not, and cannot, be offered to show that Defendant's prior crimes, if any, were somehow vitiated, see Sansone 380 U.S. at 354, and the jury will be clearly instructed as to the elements of the charged offenses and the meaning of willfulness.

Based on the foregoing, the Government has not demonstrated that the probative value of Defendant's delinquent filings is substantially outweighed by the risk of misleading the jury.

JAT Comments:

District Court Holds that FBAR Nonwillful Penalty Survives Death (7/5/21)

In United States v. Gill, 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 12203 (S.D. Tex. 6/30/21), CL here, the court held that an FBAR nonwillful penalty survives the death of the person subject to the penalty.  The decision turned on whether the FBAR nonwillful penalty was remedial or penal in nature.  The general rule is that remedial liabilities survive death, but penal liabilities do not.  The difference between these two categories is based on tests formulated in Hudson v. United States, 522 U.S. 100-101 (1997) (invoking the multi-factor test under Kennedy v. Mendoza-Martinez, 372 U.S. 144, 168–69, 83 S. Ct. 554 (1963)).  Where the cause of action does not fall “neatly” in these categories, the decision is made by “primary purpose of the statute.” (Slip Op. p. 8.)  Applying these tests, the Court finds the FBAR civil nonwillful penalty remedial.

A number of cases (cited by the court in the opinion) have held that the FBAR willful penalty (which in its typical application by the IRS produces larger penalties than would have applied under the nonwillful penalty) was remedial, thus permitting the penalty to survive death. Accordingly, it is not surprising that the nonwillful penalty survives death.

Thursday, July 1, 2021

Preliminary Comments on the Trump Organization and CFO Indictment (7/2/21; 7/4/21)

The much-anticipated indictment of the Trump Corporation and components and its Chief Financial Officer (“CFO”), Allen Weisselberg, has been released.  The caption is The People of New York v. The Trump Corporation, et. al. (N.Y. Supreme Court - no number available).  The indictment is here.  (The pdf copies on the web were not adequately OCR’d; I had this copy OCR’d using Adobe Acrobat text recognition; the OCRing came out much better than the copies I found in my quick searches.)

Here are my first general comments (which I may supplement or revise later):

1. The general thrust of the indictment had been reported before the indictment came out.  Basically, through various schemes, certain individuals (including, for purposes of this indictment, the CFO) caused the corporation to underreport and underpay tax liabilities.  Essentially, these individuals caused the corporation to pay compensation that did not appear on the books and filings as corporation subject to various tax obligations – including reporting income of the individuals benefiting from the payments, avoiding payroll tax to the payors and payees, etc.  

2.  This is a fairly common pattern in a closely held corporation except that the payments often go to the owner and the owner’s family rather than to an employee (here the CFO).  In this case, the owner is Trump and the owner’s family are the Trump children and spouses.  Nothing is said about Trump’s off-the-books use of corporate assets, but with the egregious conduct for Weisselberg, one has to wonder whether charges against Trump are waiting in the wings, with the prosecutor hoping Weisselberg will flip.  Given Trump's alleged use of oral instructions (or signals) to avoid putting his conduct in writing to the extent possible, somebody like the CFO would be an important (perhaps not a necessary) witness against Trump if he were indicted.

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

U.S. Group Requests to FTA for U.S. Individual NonConsenteng Account Information (6/30/21)

It’s been quite some time since I paid any attention to the application of FATCA with Swiss Banks and how information of U.S. taxpayers' accounts are reported to the IRS under FATCA.  To provide a high-level summary, for U.S holders of accounts not consenting to automotive disclosure to the IRS of account information, those banks are required to make aggregate disclosures to the Federal Tax Administration ("FTA") which provides the aggregate information to the IRS.  For Swiss Banks that report in the aggregate, the IRS may make “group requests” through the Administrative Assistance procedure that requires the Swiss Banks to disclose the individual account information.  The Swiss Federal Tax Administration discussion of the process is here; the IRS discussion and links describing the general process is here; the IRS description is here  Individual account owners are notified of the request either by notice to the notice information with respect to the account or by publication in Switzerland and may appeal (good luck with that).

Group requests are requests requiring the FTA and the Swiss Banks to get information through account characteristics where the name of the account holder is not known to the requesting authority (here the U.S. competent authority).  I don't know what characteristics a provided in some format like database fields, but imagine that the fields may include (i) amount in each account on the FBAR reporting date; (ii) high amount during the report year; (iii) whether the client had some type of no mail instruction or mail instructions for a non-US address; and other similar characteristics.  The IRS through the competent authority could then ask, for example, for (i) all accounts which in the aggregate for the Bank equaled or exceeded $500,000 on the reporting date or during the year; or (ii) all accounts with aggregate amounts of $250,000 for accounts any of which had a no mail instruction or mail to a non-US address.  There are a number of other characteristics the IRS might specify that would "mine" the "have value" targets requiring that the Banks disclose.

 The IRS has made several group requests starting in December 2020.  The latest request (the 5th request) was June 28, 2021, with the aggregate banks for whom requests were made as follows (a copy and paste from the FTA page, here; note that some Financial Institution names may be slightly different on my spreadsheet): 

Monday, June 28, 2021

Article and Study on Tax Evasion by the Wealthy (6/28/21; 6/29/21)

This recent article is likely of interest to tax crimes fans.  Asher Schechter, How Insufficient Enforcement Led to Prevalent Tax Evasion and Contributed to American Inequality (U. Chicago Booth School Stigler Center Promarket 6/24/21), here.  The article expands on the recent publication of IRS data on the very wealthy by ProPublica.  See ProPublica Publishes Series Based on IRS Data Trove Produced by Anonymous Source (Federal Tax Crimes Blog 6/8/21), here; and Tax Crimes Core Concept Questions from ProPublica's Publication of Tax Return Information (Federal Tax Crimes Blog 6/10/21), here.

About the ProPublica disclosed data, the author of this article discusses the tax evasion – yes, the crime – aspects of the phenomenon, citing a recent NBER publication, John Guyton, Patrick Langetieg, Daniel Reck, Max Risch & Gabriel Zucman, Tax Evasion at the Top of the Income Distribution (NBER Working Paper Series No. 28542 March 2021), here.

Excerpts from the article:

             The other side of the coin is tax evasion, which unlike tax avoidance is illegal. How prevalent is tax evasion by the rich, and how significant is it to the overall picture of inequality? A working paper published in March by researchers John Guyton and Patrick Langetieg from the IRS, along with economists Daniel Reck (London School of Economics), Max Risch (Carnegie Mellon), and Gabriel Zucman (University of California, Berkeley) showed tax evasion at the top of the US income distribution is much worse than previously thought: while unreported or under-reported income is at 7 percent among the bottom 50 percent of the income distribution, the top 1 percent hide 21 percent of their true income.

            Tax evasion by high-income people is notoriously difficult to measure due to the myriad ways in which wealthy individuals can evade taxes, from unreported offshore accounts to pass-through entities like partnerships and S-corporations. To study the extent of tax evasion, Guyton et al. used a trove of IRS tax return data, mainly from the IRS’ random audit program, the National Research Program (NRP). What they find is that of the 21 percent of true income that top earners don’t report to the IRS, 6 percent is due to these sophisticated tax evasion strategies.

            In addition to the increasingly regressive US tax system (a trend that was also covered in Zucman’s 2019 book with Emmanuel Saez), the study also underscores how inadequate enforcement contributed to America’s current tax inequality, highlighting the asymmetry between high-income, high-wealth individuals, who have the funds to attempt ever more sophisticated methods of tax evasion, and the IRS auditors, who don’t have the resources to keep up.

Evasion Largely Goes Undetected

Thursday, June 24, 2021

Tax Court Opinion with Cryptic Comment on Excessive Restitution Based Assessments (6/24/21; 6/28/21)

In Ervin v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2021-75, TC here see fn * at end of blog, the Court (Judge Lauber) nicely sets up the issues and holdings in the opening paragraphs (footnote omitted):

Petitioner failed to file Federal income tax returns for 2000-2009 and was convicted of tax crimes for 2004-2006. In June 2012 he was sentenced to imprisonment and ordered to pay restitution of $1,436,508, the amount of the Government's estimated tax loss. After petitioner was remanded to custody, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS or respondent) completed a civil examination [*2] of his 2002-2007 tax years. In 2014 it sent him notices of deficiency determining deficiencies for those years based on the tax loss figures used in the sentencing. The IRS also determined additions to tax under sections 6651(a)(1), 6651(a)(2), 6651(f), and 6654.1 Petitioner timely petitioned this Court in January 2015 and (about a year later) fully satisfied his restitution obligation.

Respondent has moved for summary judgment. Petitioner does not dispute the deficiencies. But because he has fully paid the deficiencies by virtue of his restitution payments, which were credited against his tax liabilities, he insists that he should not be liable for any additions to tax. Because the additions to tax accrued before the restitution was ordered or paid, we find that petitioner is liable for these amounts, subject to certain concessions by respondent. We will therefore grant respondent's motion for summary judgment to the extent set forth in this opinion.

Something in the opinion caught my eye, so I thought I would post without definitive discussion but as an alert for persons interested in the arcania of restitution based assessments ("RBA") under § 6201(a)(4)(A).  The Court says (p. 12 n. 3) cryptically):

   n2 If petitioner's restitution payments exceed the deficiencies we have determined for 2002-2007, those payments may be available for credit against other unpaid tax liabilities he may have, including the additions to tax discussed in the text.

Thursday, June 17, 2021

TIGTA Report on Criminal Restitution Assessment Procedures (6/17/21)

TIGTA has issued a report titled Criminal Restitution Assessment Procedures Need Improvement (TIGTA Report No. 2021-30-033 6/7/21), here.  For those interested in criminal restitution for taxes, this is excellent reading, discussing both the law related to the restitution procedures for taxes and the IRS’s procedural implementation.

The Report Highlights are:

Why TIGTA Did This Audit 

The Firearms Excise Tax Improvement Act of 2010 authorized the IRS to assess criminal restitution ordered after August 16, 2010, so that the IRS could collect the amount as if it were a tax. Prior to this change in the law, the IRS accepted payments of restitution but could not assess the amount of restitution ordered or use its administrative collection tools to collect the restitution. Only the Department of Justice could collect the amount of restitution.

This audit was initiated to determine if defendants convicted of tax-related crimes are held responsible for the payments of the associated taxes. 

Impact on Taxpayers 

The ultimate goal of every criminal prosecution is not merely to obtain a conviction but also to obtain a sentence sufficient to discourage similar criminal violations by other taxpayers. It is important that the IRS have effective procedures to ensure that the defendants are held responsible for their crimes and the maximum amount of criminal restitution is collected. 

What TIGTA Found

IRM PDT and CAU Designations for Problem Taxpayers (6/17/21)

In Hogan  v. Commissioner (T.C. Dkt Docket No. 11229-15 Bench Opinion dated 6/9/21), here, the Tax Court (Judge Buch) rejected the taxpayer’s request for interest abatement on tax liabilities.  Hogan had previously pled guilty to tax evasion.  All of the commotion about tax liability and interest arose from that event.  There was nothing particularly interesting or of precedential value (hence the bench opinion).  But I noted that Hogan complained about being designated a “Potentially Dangerous Taxpayer.”  The relevant portions of the transcript (pp. 13 & 15-16):

Mr. Hogan was displeased with having been labeled as a potentially dangerous taxpayer or PDT. The Commissioner uses the designation of PTD to "identify taxpayers who represent a potential danger to employees." Internal Revenue Manual, (Oct. 31, 2018). Mr. Hogan learned of this designation through a request under the Freedom of Information Act. He argues that this designation resulted in unfavorable treatment during the appeal process. He did not direct us to any error or delay resulting from his designation as a potentially dangerous taxpayer.

* * * *

Regarding his designation as a potentially dangerous taxpayer, Mr. Hogan failed to meet his burden at every level. He did not establish that there was an error in designating him as a PDT. Even if that were erroneous, he did not establish that the designation caused any error, delay, or additional interest. And given his repeated efforts to avoid payment, he clearly did not establish that he would have paid his tax earlier.

Having not recalled paying any attention to the PDT designation, I did a Google scholar search and found nothing of interest.  I recommend that readers of this blog interested in the PDT designation, read the IRM here discussing the PDT Program and the related Caution Upon Contact ("CAU") designation.  Key excerpts are: (10-31-2018)

In 1984, the IRS Commissioner assigned IRS Inspection the responsibility of developing a program to improve the Service's ability to identify taxpayers who represent a potential danger to employees. Inspection developed the Potentially Dangerous Taxpayer (PDT) program, which included the PDT System database. Inspection was then given responsibility for administering the program.

Inspection became the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) in 1999. Most of Inspection’s previous duties, including the administration of the PDT program, were transferred to TIGTA. Due to TIGTA’s statutory role and responsibilities, however, it was agreed that the administration and maintenance of the PDT program be transferred back to the IRS. IRS established the Office of Employee Protection (OEP) in February 2000 to administer and maintain the PDT program and fulfill other employee safety recommendations. TIGTA, however, retains its investigatory role in the PDT program.

* * * *

Thursday, June 10, 2021

Tax Crimes Core Concept Questions from ProPublica's Publication of Tax Return Information (6/10/21)

Two days ago, I posted on perhaps the top tax story at least on this news cycle:  ProPublica Publishes Series Based on IRS Data Trove Produced by Anonymous Source (Federal Tax Crimes Blog 6/8/21), here.  In the posting, I focused on the legality of the disclosure of the IRS information, known as return information, about the identified taxpayers.  Section 7213, here, makes it a felony crime for IRS personnel to disclosethe return information and for nongovernment persons receiving and disclosing (publishing) the information.  ProPublica seems within the scope of § 7213(a)(3).

As I noted in the blog, ProPublica stated that it was aware of the law and justified its disclosure as follows:

There is also a legal question here, and we want you to know we have taken it seriously. A federal law ostensibly makes it a criminal offense to disclose tax return information. But we do not believe that law would be constitutional if applied to bar or sanction publication of a story in the public interest when the news organization did not itself remove the information from the control of the IRS or solicit anyone else to do so — as we did not. And this is not our first experience with this law.

In 2012, someone at the IRS (we don’t know who or why; they used a plain brown IRS envelope) sent ProPublica copies of tax filings seeking exemption for a number of political committees, including Republican political guru Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS. The filings were not yet supposed to be public, and the IRS indicated that it would consider our publication of them to be criminal. We explained our view of the constitutionality of that statute as applied in such circumstances and published our story, which raised concerns about whether Rove’s group had been forthcoming with the agency. We never heard about the matter from the IRS again.

I offer today questions for Tax Crimes professionals and students to test a basic federal tax crimes concept.  Section 7213(a)(3), like the earlier provisions in § 7213(a) requires that the person “willfully” disclose the return information.  Indeed, most of the tax crimes in the IRC (Title 26) require the person act willfully.  Willfully requires "'a voluntary, intentional violation of a known legal duty.'" Cheek v. United States, 498 U.S. 192, 200 (1991), here.

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

ProPublica Publishes Series Based on IRS Data Trove Produced by Anonymous Source (6/8/21)

The investigative news organization, ProPublica, started a series based on IRS data about the very rich that somehow showed up on ProPublica’s whistleblower platform.  The first in the series is The Secret IRS Files: Trove of Never-Before-Seen Records Reveal How the Wealthiest Avoid Income Tax by Jesse Eisinger (6/8/21(, Jeff Ernsthausen and Paul Kiel.  The article is here.  The first offering provides an overview and focuses on specific well-known super-wealthy American “taxpayers.”  It shows that their true tax paid relative to their economic income is miniscule, sometimes well under 1%.  

It is not a revelation to persons interested in the tax system that the super-wealthy (and even less wealthy) “taxpayers” whose economic income is reflected in assets can do amazing things to make sure the income is not taxed, including shifting values to family and friends and even dying to achieve a step up in basis (true, there may be an estate tax but even that can be mitigated in ways to insure that they never bear their fair share of the cost of government).

The first installment is interesting, although I am not sure it adds much to what tax professionals would have intuited anyway.  Perhaps it will make those intuitions more accessible to the general public and therefore contribute to the discussion of how to allocate the costs of a civilized society among those who benefit from that civilized society.

More interesting for readers of this blog is how ProPublica got the IRS data trove and the legal consequences.  First, as to how ProPublica got the information, ProPublica explains at this web page:  Why We Are Publishing the Tax Secrets of the .001%, here.  Basically, investigative journalists sometimes have a whistleblower or informer site where information can be disclosed with anonymity.  ProPublica further explains:

We do not know the identity of our source. We did not solicit the information they sent us. The source says they were motivated by our previous coverage of issues surrounding the IRS and tax enforcement, but we do not know for certain that is true. We have considered the possibility that information we have received could have come from a state actor hostile to American interests. In particular, a number of government agencies were compromised last year by what the U.S. has said were Russian hackers who exploited vulnerabilities in software sold by SolarWinds, a Texas-based information technology company. We do note, however, that the Treasury Department’s inspector general for tax administration wrote in December that, “At this time, there is no evidence that any taxpayer information was exposed” in the SolarWinds hack.

Friday, June 4, 2021

FBAR Civil Willful Penalty Sustained Against Long Time Accountant and Tax Preparer Who Claimed He Did Not Have Time to Read the Schedule B Instructions (6/4/21)

In United States v. Kronowitz (S.D. Fla. No. 19-cv-62648 Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law dated 6/3/21), CL here, the Court sustained the Government’s assertion of the FBAR civil willful penalty.  The facts were bad for Kronowitz in trying to avoid the penalty.  He was an accountant and regular tax return preparer over many years.  He claimed inter alia (slip op. 11):

He admitted to seeing hundreds of Schedule Bs, and being familiar with the purpose of Schedule B and its requirements, but testified that he probably did not read the instructions because he was more concerned with providing for his family and taking care of his clients. Indeed, he testified that “my purpose in life at the time was to get clients, bill them, and collect the money, not spending the whole year reading[.]”

Well, he lost.

JAT Comments:

1. Another example of a taxpayer who certainly knew about the OVDP and for  some reason chose not to timely join the program.  (Of course, he did have some relationship to a UBS which could have meant that UBS turned his name over  to the IRS early and thus was disqualified.

2. The Court found the taxpayer was sufficiently reckless that he met the standard for willful for  the civil penalty.  The Court said that Kronowitz's defense was that he was not "willful or reckless."  As stated, Kronovitz's argument was that willful and reckless are alternative bases for the penalty.  That is not true.  The statute imposes the penalty only on willful conduct which, for FBAR civil penalty purposes, is interpreted to include reckless conduct.

Friday, May 28, 2021

More on Willful Blindness (5/28/21)

Today, I revisit one of my “rant” topics – willful blindness (aka deliberate ignorance, conscious avoidance, etc.).  My past rants have been about using the concept of willful blindness as a substitute for a specific knowledge requirement in criminal statutes, particularly the willfully element of most Title 26 tax crimes.  To remind, that willfully element, often referred to as the Cheek interpretation of the willfully element in tax crimes, is specific intent to violate a known legal duty.  Cheek v. United States, 498 U.S. 192, 201 (1991).  Such a specific intent requires that a defendant know the facts that create a legal duty and must know the law (sufficiently) to know that he is violating a legal duty.  I have urged that, if Congress legislated a knowledge element for a crime, courts and juries should not be treating something that is not knowledge as knowledge.  That is effectively creating a common law crime, supposedly a no, no in our legal system.

I periodically review willful blindness cases to see if there is more ranting I can do without duplicating my ranting too much.  I read a case today that offered something that I should have noticed and ranted on before.

The willful blindness concept requires that the defendant:  "(1) The defendant must subjectively believe that there is a high probability that a fact exists and (2) the defendant must take deliberate actions to avoid learning of that fact."  Global-Tech Appliances, Inc. v. SEB S.A., 563 U.S. 754, 766 (2011).  Global-Tech was a civil case, but the Supreme Court looked to criminal analogies where the concept was deployed, so courts often cite Global-Tech in criminal cases.  The Supreme Court in Global Tech also said that willful blindness applies when the defendant “can almost be said to have actually known the critical facts.”  (pp. 769-770, emphasis supplied by JAT.)  I suppose that if one took that sentence literally, a defendant in a criminal case can be convicted of a crime requiring specific knowledge even without that specific knowledge.  But, we all know from the trajectory of the willfully requirement for the civil and criminal FBAR penalties that willfully is not the same for criminal purposes as for civil FBAR purposes, with willfully for civil FBAR purposes permitting something like willful blindness / reckless behavior to meet the willfully element in a way that could not suffice for the crime.  The statement in Global-Tech thus may be technically dicta.

I have urged in my rants that, instead of a substitute for the statutory element of specific knowledge, the role of facts indicating willful blindness should instead be circumstantial evidence of actual knowledge that would permit the factfinder (jury in most criminal cases) to infer the required knowledge (the actual statutory element for the crime) beyond a reasonable doubt.  It is not and should not be a substitute for the statutory element requiring specific knowledge.

Thursday, May 27, 2021

Foreign Account Holder Claiming Ignorance of FBAR Obligation Loses on Willful Penalty Because of Reckless Disregard (5/17/21)

In United States v. Goldsmith,  (S.D. Cal. 3:20-cv-00087-BEN-KSC Order dated 5/25/21), CL here and TN here, the Court granted summary judgment to the Government in a FBAR civil willful penalty FBAR collection suit.  The Court held that on the facts presented on the motion for summary judgment, the Government was entitled to summary judgment on Goldsmith’s liability.  

It is a long opinion (73 pages).  The facts are ugly for Mr. Goldsmith and are recounted in detail on pp. 2-12 of the opinion.  On the facts presented and found for purposes of the motion, the Court held that 

1. Mr. Goldsmith Fails to Show a Genuine Issue of Fact Exists as to Whether He Concealed the Swiss Account from his Tax Preparer

2. Mr. Goldsmith Fails to Show a Genuine Issue of Fact Exists as to Whether He Informed Mr. Zipser [Tax Preparer] About the Italian Account

3. Mr. Goldsmith Fails to Show a Genuine Issue of Fact Exists as to Whether He Concealed Information from the Government

4. Mr. Goldsmith Fails to Show a Genuine Issue of Fact Exists as to Whether He Controlled the Account

5. Mr. Goldsmith Fails to Show a Genuine Issue of Fact Exists as to Whether He Chose to Divest U.S. Securities

The Court then found that, although there was a triable issue as to whether Goldsmith knew of the obligation to file the FBAR, there was no triable issue as to whether Goldsmith recklessly disregarded his FBAR obligations and that reckless disregard was enough for FBAR civil willful penalty liability.

Friday, May 21, 2021

New Book on Decision in Human Judgment, Including Sentencing (5/21/21)

Steven Brill offers this New York Times book review of Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgment by Daniel Kahneman, Olivier Sibony and Cass R. Sunstein (NYT 5/18/21), here.  The book discusses noises in human judgment defined as “unwanted variability in judgments.”  Essentially, it discusses how noise prevents consistency in judgments where consistency should have a high value.

Criminal sentencing draws the authors' attention.  Readers of this blog will recall that prior to the federal Sentencing Guidelines in the 1980’s, federal sentencing was much a crap shoot, with sentencing for similar crimes varying all over the lot.  Some described sentencing as the wild, wild west.  Then the Guidelines came along to bring more consistency by providing somewhat objective matrices could calibrate a sentencing range.  Then, United States v. Booker, 543 U.S. 220 (2005) was decided that returned sentencing to more discretion for the judge.  As some have said Booker brought the the wild, wild west back to sentencing, so long as the sentencing judge can come up with some minimum rationale for the usually downward variance than can pass a laugh test if the Government or the defendant appeals the out of Guidelines sentence.

Brill, here, a lawyer and author of books and commentary on the law and related subjects, starts the book review with the following:

A study of 1.5 million cases found that when judges are passing down sentences on days following a loss by the local city’s football team, they tend to be tougher than on days following a win. The study was consistent with a steady stream of anecdotal reports beginning in the 1970s that showed sentencing decisions for the same crime varied dramatically — indeed scandalously — for individual judges and also depending on which judge drew a particular case.

Brill notes that the authors claim that apparently unreconcilable inconsistences are about noise which they define as "unwanted variability in judgments."

Consistency equals fairness. If bias can be eliminated and sensible processes put in place, we should be able to arrive at the “right” result. Lack of consistency too often produces the wrong results because it’s often no better, the authors write, than the random judgments of “a dart-throwing chimpanzee.” And, of course, unexplained inconsistency undermines credibility and the systems in which those judgements are made.

As the authors explain in their introduction, a team of target shooters whose shots always fall to the right of the bull’s-eye is exhibiting a bias, as is a judge who always sentences Black people more harshly. That’s bad, but at least they are consistent, which means the biases can be identified and corrected. But another team whose shots are scattered in different directions away from the target is shooting noisily, and that’s harder to correct. A third team whose shots all go to the left of the bull’s-eye but are scattered high and low is both biased and noisy.