Tuesday, October 30, 2018

GAO Report on IRS Whistleblower Processing and Improvement of Data Controls (10/30/18)

The GAO issued a report titled "Whistleblower Program: IRS Needs to Improve Data Controls for Some Award Determinations (GAO-18-698 published 9/28/18 and publicly released 10/29/18).  The fast facts, highlights and recommendations are here.  The full report is here.

I cut and paste the highlights below:
What GAO Found 
Prior to February 9, 2018, when Congress enacted a statutory change requiring the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to include penalties for Report of Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts (FBAR) violations in calculating whistleblower awards, IRS interpreted the whistleblower law to exclude these penalties from awards. However, GAO found that some whistleblowers provided information about FBAR noncompliance to IRS. In a sample of 132 whistleblower claims closed between January 2012 and July 2017, GAO found that IRS assessed FBAR penalties in 28 cases. It is unknown whether the whistleblower's information led IRS to take action in all of these cases. These penalties totaled approximately $10.7 million. Had they been included in whistleblower awards, total awards could have increased up to $3.2 million. Over 97 percent of the FBAR penalties collected from these 28 claims came from 10 cases with willful FBAR noncompliance, for which higher penalties apply.
Report of Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts (FBAR) Penalties and Potential Whistleblower Awards for Selected IRS Whistleblower Claims Closed between January 1, 2012, and July 24, 2017
FBAR penalty type
Number of claims
FBAR penalty amount (dollars)
Maximum potential whistleblower awarda(dollars)
Willful penalty
Non-willful & negligent penalty

Source: GAO analysis of IRS data. | GAO-18-698
a Maximum potential award is defined as 30 percent of the FBAR penalty amount.
IRS forwards whistleblower allegations of FBAR noncompliance to its operating divisions for further examination. However, IRS Form 11369, a key form used for making award determinations, does not require examiners to include information about the usefulness of a whistleblower's information FBAR and other non-tax issues. After Congress enacted the statutory change, IRS suspended award determinations for 1 week, but resumed the program before updating the form or its instructions, or issuing internal guidance on new information required on the Form. As of June 28, 2018, IRS had not begun updating the Form 11369 or its instructions. The lack of clear instructions on the form for examiners to include information on FBAR and other non-tax enforcement collections may result in relevant information being excluded from whistleblower award decisions.
IRS maintains FBAR penalty data in a standalone database. It uses these data for internal and external reporting and to make management decisions. Because of the change in statute, IRS will need these data for determining whistleblower awards. GAO found that IRS does not have sufficient quality controls to ensure the reliability of FBAR penalty data. For example, IRS staff enter data into the database manually but there are no secondary checks to make sure the data entered are accurate. Without additional controls for data reliability, IRS risks making decisions, including award determinations, with incomplete or inaccurate data. 
This is a public version of a sensitive report issued in August 2018. Information on the FBAR Database that IRS deemed to be sensitive has been omitted. 
Why GAO Did This Study 
Tax whistleblowers who report on the underpayment of taxes by others have helped IRS collect $3.6 billion since 2007, according to IRS. IRS pays qualifying whistleblowers between 15 and 30 percent of the proceeds it collects as a result of their information. However, until February 9, 2018, IRS did not pay whistleblowers for information that led to the collection of FBAR penalties. 
GAO was asked to review how often and to what extent whistleblower claims involve cases where FBAR penalties were also assessed. Among other objectives, this report (1) describes the extent to which FBAR penalties were included in whistleblower awards prior to the statutory change in definition of proceeds; (2) examines how IRS used whistleblower information on FBAR noncompliance, and how IRS responded to the statutory change in definition of proceeds; and (3) describes the purposes for which IRS collects and uses FBAR penalty data, and assesses controls for ensuring data reliability. GAO reviewed the files of 132 claims closed between January 1, 2012, and July 24, 2017, that likely included FBAR allegations; analyzed IRS data; reviewed relevant laws and regulations, and IRS policies, procedures and publications; and interviewed IRS officials. 
What GAO Recommends 
GAO recommends IRS update IRS Form 11369 and improve controls for the reliability of FBAR penalty data. IRS agreed with all of GAO's recommendations.
JAT Comments:

Thursday, October 25, 2018

IRS CI Data Mining (10/25/18)

I am preparing to participate in a panel discussion on "Remaining Offshore Compliance Options and International Hot Topics" at the 14th Annual University Of San Diego School Of Law Procopio International Tax Institute, here.  Yesterday, while reviewing one of the slide presentations, I noted an IRS emphasis of "internal data mining."  Most practitioners have known for many years that the IRS had computer algorithms to analyze and match data (either data internal to a tax return or from associated tax filings such as W-2s).  But, the data mining concept is beyond that type of "mining."  I had only a general sense of what data mining might be.  I wanted to know more about data mining generally and in the IRS specifically.

Wikipedia, here, introduces data mining as follows (footnotes omitted):
Data mining is the process of discovering patterns in large data sets involving methods at the intersection of machine learning, statistics, and database systems. Data mining is an interdisciplinary subfield of computer science with an overall goal to extract information (with intelligent methods) from a data set and transform the information into a comprehensible structure for further use. Data mining is the analysis step of the "knowledge discovery in databases" process, or KDD. Aside from the raw analysis step, it also involves database and data management aspects, data pre-processing, model and inference considerations, interestingness metrics, complexity considerations, post-processing of discovered structures, visualization, and online updating. 
The term "data mining" is in fact a misnomer, because the goal is the extraction of patterns and knowledge from large amounts of data, not the extraction (mining) of data itself. It also is a buzzword and is frequently applied to any form of large-scale data or information processing (collection, extraction, warehousing, analysis, and statistics) as well as any application of computer decision support system, including artificial intelligence (e.g., machine learning) and business intelligence. The book Data mining: Practical machine learning tools and techniques with Java (which covers mostly machine learning material) was originally to be named just Practical machine learning, and the term data mining was only added for marketing reasons. Often the more general terms (large scale) data analysis and analytics – or, when referring to actual methods, artificial intelligence and machine learning – are more appropriate. 
The actual data mining task is the semi-automatic or automatic analysis of large quantities of data to extract previously unknown, interesting patterns such as groups of data records (cluster analysis), unusual records (anomaly detection), and dependencies (association rule mining, sequential pattern mining). This usually involves using database techniques such as spatial indices. These patterns can then be seen as a kind of summary of the input data, and may be used in further analysis or, for example, in machine learning and predictive analytics. For example, the data mining step might identify multiple groups in the data, which can then be used to obtain more accurate prediction results by a decision support system. Neither the data collection, data preparation, nor result interpretation and reporting is part of the data mining step, but do belong to the overall KDD process as additional steps. 
The related terms data dredging, data fishing, and data snooping refer to the use of data mining methods to sample parts of a larger population data set that are (or may be) too small for reliable statistical inferences to be made about the validity of any patterns discovered. These methods can, however, be used in creating new hypotheses to test against the larger data populations.
I can't say I fully understand the concept.  I have worked with large databases for litigation and other projects and, earlier in my career, built some of my own databases (e.g., a practice management database and litigation databases) using DBaseIII and Microsoft Access.  But, the data mining concept goes way beyond any database with which I am personally familiar.

I inquired and found out that the IRS and IRS CI specifically is using Palantir tools for data mining.  (I have some links on Palantir toward the end of this blog.)  At a recent institute, the Deputy Chief of CI announced that IRS CI will sometime in the near future IRS will hire data scientists to develop data mining solutions to make its agents more efficient.

So, I did some internet searches.  I include below some of the links and excerpts results of those google searches.  I am not able to offer anything more definitive than below, but I will be on the lookout for further information that readers might find helpful on data mining.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

IRS CI Agent Sentenced for Crimes, Including Tax Crimes (10/23/18)

According to a DOJ press release, here, a former IRS CI Agent has been sentenced to 51 months incarceration "for filing false tax returns, obstruction of justice, and stealing government money."  Key excerpts:
According to the evidence introduced at trial, Alena Aleykina, 45, who is also a Certified Public Accountant and holds a master’s degree in business administration, filed six false tax returns – three personal tax returns for years 2009, 2010, and 2011, and three in the names of trusts she created for years 2010 and 2011.  On her personal tax returns, Aleykina fraudulently claimed the head of household filing status, listed false dependents, and claimed deductions for education expenses to which she was not entitled.  Aleykina also obtained a fraudulent legal separation decree from the California Superior Court for Yolo County so that she and her husband could claim rental real estate loss deductions to which they were not entitled.  Further, on a trust tax return, she falsely claimed to be paying wages to her mother and her sister to care for her son and father. 
Additionally, Aleykina stole government funds and obstructed justice during the investigation.  She stole from the IRS’s Tuition Assistance Program, a program created to allow IRS employees to take job-related classes from local colleges and educational institutions. Aleykina falsely claimed to be taking English classes from a trust registered to her sister. As a result of these fake classes, Aleykina recieved $4,000 in tuition reimbursement from the Tuition Assistance Program.  When criminal investigators approached Aleykina to retrieve her government laptop, Aleykina lied to the agents about the location of the laptop and deleted dozens of files from the computer after the agents left.  The total loss to the government from Aleykina’s conduct is more than $50,000.
Aleykina was previously convicted in June after a two-week federal jury trial in the Eastern District of California of filing false tax returns, destroying records in a federal investigation, and theft of government money.
JAT Comments:  None.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Attorney Fraud Resulting in Tax Court Decision; Can It Be Corrected? How? (10/16/18; 10/17/18)

This article caught my attention today:  Bruce Vielmetti, Former Foley & Lardner partner suspended for falsifying documents in IRS audit of Carmex family (Journal Sentinel 10/16/18), here.  The opening paragraph says:
A former Foley & Lardner partner was suspended two years Tuesday by the state Supreme Court for lying to the IRS during an audit of two wealthy estates connected to a major area business.  
So, I went to the Wisconsin Supreme Court opinion which is here.  I offer the pertinent portions relevant to the issue I address here as to whether and how the IRS can correct a tax under-assessed because of a Tax Court decision induced by fraud.
¶6 While working at the Foley firm, Attorney Wiensch provided estate planning services to a husband and wife who were owners of a privately owned business corporation. Attorney Wiensch prepared a trust under the terms of which the husband and wife were the trust donors and their children were the trustees and beneficiaries. Attorney Wiensch drafted an  Installment Sale Agreement, pursuant to which the husband sold most of his stock in the company to the trust in exchange for a promissory note in an amount in excess of $50 million based on the appraised value of the stock sold. The purpose of the stock sale was to transfer wealth to the clients' children, via the trust, free of gift and estate taxes and to ensure that any future appreciation of the stock held by the trust would not become part of the husband's estate. 
¶7 Transactions structured like the stock sale are reviewed by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to determine if the promissory note is a bona fide debt, or if the transaction should be treated as a taxable gift, or if transferred assets should be included in the seller's gross estate for purposes of determining the estate tax liability. Strategies used by estate planning professionals to minimize the risk of an IRS challenge to transactions such as the stock sale have included the use of personal guarantees by trust beneficiaries of a certain percentage of the sale price, often ten percent, or of a defined value formula clause that automatically adjusts valuation of the transferred assets based on a final determination by the IRS or a court. 
¶8 The husband died first, and pursuant to his estate plan, ownership of his remaining shares in the company passed to his wife as the surviving spouse. Attorney Wiensch was retained to represent the husband's estate. Attorney Wiensch prepared the estate tax return for the husband's estate and filed it with the IRS. The IRS audited the husband's estate tax return, as well as other gift tax returns filed on behalf of the clients for years prior to the husband's death.  
¶9 An IRS estate tax attorney served as the examiner for the IRS in conducting the audit. The IRS attorney corresponded with Attorney Wiensch in an effort to obtain information material to the audit. In September 2012, in response to requests from the IRS attorney, Attorney Wiensch sent the IRS copies of an Installment Sale Agreement, a Collateral Pledge Agreement, and a Guaranty of Specific Transaction. Attorney Wiensch represented to the IRS that the Installment Sale Agreement memorialized the terms of the stock sale and that the Collateral Pledge and Guaranty related to the stock sale. The copy of the Installment Sale Agreement Attorney Wiensch sent to the IRS in September 2012 contained a defined value formula clause. Attorney Wiensch altered and misdated the Installment Sale Agreement he sent to the IRS in September 2012. He did not prepare this document contemporaneously with the stock sale. The Installment Sale Agreement the husband actually executed on an earlier date did not contain the defined value formula clause.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

On the Klein/Defraud Conspiracy Used by Special Counsel Against Russian Targets; A Tool for Use Against Trump? (10/9/18)

In my federal tax crimes practice and writing I have often lamented the potential sweeping scope of what is called the "Klein conspiracy," which is the defraud conspiracy under 18 USC § 371.  There are two types of conspiracy in the statute -- (i) a conspiracy to commit an offense otherwise prescribed by statute, such as a conspiracy to commit tax evasion as defined in § 7201 (called an offense conspiracy) and (ii) a conspiracy to defraud the U.S., worded variously but generally stated as a conspiracy to impair or impede the lawful functions of a U.S. agency.  The second, the defraud conspiracy, is commonly called a Klein conspiracy named for a leading defraud conspiracy case.  The Klein conspiracy does not require a separate offense as the object of the conspiracy; it simply requires that two or more persons conspire together simply to impair or impede the Government agency.  The Klein conspiracy is frequently used for larger tax crimes where the alleged object is to impair or impede the IRS, but can be used in other agency settings as well.  (Klein itself was a tax case.)

A good general article on the potential dangers of the Klein conspiracy is here:  Eric Felten, A Conspiracy So Vast . . .: But where’s the crime? (The Weekly Standard 10/9/18), here.  I am quoted in the article because I have written, copiously about my concerns about the potential breadth of the Klein conspiracy.  (See links to the principal writings collected at the end of this blog entry.) Felten's article does not get into the twists and turns explored in my thrashings on the issue, but does provide a good summary overview for knowledgeable reader not otherwise steeped in the details of the law of conspiracy theories.  The particular interest of the article is the deployment of the Klein conspiracy by the special counsel in the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

Here are some quotes from the article:
Dreeben argued that the United States needs only “to prove a conspiracy to defraud the United States.” But “we do not need to prove a criminal violation of the underlying statute,” he told the judge. In other words, the prosecution is claiming that a conspiracy to do “x” can be criminal even if “x” is not itself a criminal act. This may sound strange, but it’s not a mistake. Pressed by Judge Dabney Friedrich, the deputy solicitor general restated it: “There’s a legion of cases,” Dreeben said, that “have specifically said you don’t need to have an underlying illegality in a conspiracy to defraud.” 
He’s right. Conspiracy law is notoriously elastic. Even so, a prosecutor would rather have conspirators dead to rights on a clear, willful violation of a law than have to establish that colluding to do something not proved to be a crime is nonetheless a crime in and of itself. The latter sort of scenario is why you might need a deputy solicitor general on your team. 
The specific acts Concord is alleged to have engaged in—paying Russians to write social media posts about American politics—aren’t necessarily illegal. Such activities may violate the spirit of U.S. election law and the Foreign Agents Registration Act, but they don’t necessarily fit the elements of any crime on the books. That’s where the conspiracy charge comes in handy. Concord’s lawyers say their client has been charged “for a contrived crime not specifically defined in any statute, without notice and under a standard known only to the special counsel.” 
Yes, and so what? responds the special counsel’s office. Quoting case law, Mueller’s team asserts, “The [conspiracy to] defraud clause does not depend on allegations of other offenses.” And because of that, “even otherwise ‘lawful activity may furnish the basis for a conviction under [Section] 371’ ”—that is, the section of federal law dealing with criminal conspiracies. 
* * * * 
How did we get to a place where agreeing with someone to do something otherwise legal can be prosecuted as a criminal conspiracy? And is Concord Management likely to have any luck challenging the constitutionality of such a law?

Swiss Dispute Sharing Data with U.S. (10/9/18)

Swiss-US tax data transfer method 'violates law' (SWI swissinfo 10/7/18), here.  The article is short.  I nevertheless excerpt the following:
The Swiss Supreme Court has already issued a ruling that bans the indiscriminate disclosure of people’s names without forewarning the individuals involved. This applies even when Switzerland has a treaty to automatically exchange tax information with other countries, as it does with 30 nations including the US. 
* * * * 
These treaties were signed following a US criminal probe into the way Swiss banks helped tax evaders. The investigation and threats of legal sanctions brought about the demise of Swiss banking secrecy.  
Data Protection Commissioner, Adrian Lobsiger, believes the Finance Ministry is failing to observe the court’s ruling on protecting the rights of individuals caught up in the transfer of data. His office told the SonntagsZeitung newspaper that it had issued a complaint to the Federal Administrative Court on Friday. 
* * * * 
The tax administration says it is too costly to black out all the names on thousands of pages of documents being handed to the US, the article states. It also states that Finance Minister Ueli Maurer has the backing of the cabinet on this issue, arguing that failure to comply with US demands for data could result in damaging repercussions. 
A spokesman for the Finance Ministry told the SonntagsZeitung that the department has authority to send data to countries that have a functioning constitutional system. Swiss citizens therefore have the opportunity to dispute proceedings in other countries, which result from their names being handed over, by arguing that the evidence is inadmissible.

France Take UBS to Court on Cross-Border Evasion for French Taxpayers (10/9/18)

The much anticipated French trial of UBS for its cross-border tax evasion scheme for the French has started.  Cross-border evasion is basically the same as U.S. offshore evasion through Swiss banks.  Here are some articles and excerpts:

Inti Landauro and Emmanuel Jarry, Swiss bank UBS on trial in France over alleged tax fraud (Reuters 10/8/18), here.  Excerpts:
Swiss bank UBS Group AG (UBSG.S), its French unit and six executives faced charges of aggravated tax fraud and money laundering on Monday, the first day of a trial into allegations they helped wealthy clients avoid taxes in France. 
After seven years of investigation and aborted settlement negotiations, UBS will also answer allegations that it illegally solicited clients in France. It risks being fined up to 5 billion euros ($5.76 billion) plus potential damages to the French taxman for the missing revenue. 
* * * * 
UBS’s lawyer Jean Veil said the French state was asking for 1.6 billion euros in damages, which he told the court was excessive. 
“They are asking crazy amounts,” he told the court. 
* * * * 
UBS’s trial in France follows a similar judicial process in the United States, where the bank in 2009 accepted to pay $780 million in a settlement. In Germany, UBS agreed to a 300 million euro fine in 2014. 
During the French investigation, UBS turned down a settlement offer of 1.1 billion euros made by the authorities. The amount corresponded to what the Swiss bank had already paid as a court bond, according to judicial sources.
Gaspard Sebag  and Patrick Winters, UBS Accused of Bond Movie Tactics in Paris Tax-Dodging Trial (Bloomberg 10/7/18; 10/8/18), here.  Excerpts:
Eric Dezeuze, a lawyer for UBS France SA, revealed the amount on day one of a trial where the Swiss lender is accused of deploying tactics “worthy of James Bond” to help customers launder money they hadn’t declared to French authorities. He said the French state’s lawyer cited the amount in recent written submissions. 
* * * * 
Zurich-based UBS dispatched bankers across the border to seek out new clients even though they lacked the paperwork -- a banking license or European passport -- to offer such services in France, the lead investigator wrote in the indictment ahead of the trial which got underway on Monday afternoon. 
When they came over from Switzerland to France UBS bankers allegedly took several steps, described in the prosecution’s opinion on the case as akin to 007 techniques and listed in a “security risk governance” manual, to avoid detection by authorities. They used encrypted computers, had business cards without the lender’s logo and were told to switch hotels regularly, according to prosecutors. The bank has consistently denied any wrongdoing. 

Monday, October 8, 2018

All the President's Joint Defense Agreements (10/8/18)

I have previously written on joint defense agreements ("JDAs") (in reverse chronological order):

  • On Trump, Manafort and Joint Defense Agreements (Federal Tax Crimes Blog 9/14/18; 9/15/18), here.
  • More on Joint Defense Agreements (Federal Tax Crimes Blog 5/15/18), here.
  • On Joint Defense Agreements (Federal Tax Crimes Blog 11/23/17), here.

A very good discussion of JDAs in the special counsel's investigation appeared today, addressed to the general public:  Darren Samuelsohn, Trump team’s contact with Mueller targets could taint findings (Politico 10/8/18), here.  The author discusses the Trump legal team's use of JDAs and whether the use may have goals beyond those normally contemplated by JDAs.  I urge readers who are interested in the intersection of politics and the criminal law to read the article because I believe it is quite good.  (Full disclosure, I am quoted in the article.)

JAT Comments:

1.  In my experience, a participant in a JDA withdraws at least by the time the participant agrees to cooperate and tell all.  Of course, that participant will not be able to disclose items that the participant learned earlier from others in the JDA which are within the scope of the JDA.  And, if the participant disclosed information to the other participants that is confidential to himself within the scope of the JDA, the participant can still disclose that information to the prosecutors pursuant to the cooperation agreement.  The only prohibition on the cooperating participant is that he cannot disclose confidential information that the other participants in the JDA disclosed to him within the scope of the JDA.  So, to use the stark example discussed in the article, if Trump or Trump's lawyers disclosed to Manafort or Manfort's lawyers Trump's admission to a crime within the scope of the JDA, Manafort could not disclose that admission to the prosecutors and, if Manafort did disclose the admission in violation of the JDA, the prosecutors would not be able to use the admission, directly or indirectly, in criminally prosecuting Trump.  Other information that Manafort or his lawyers know that was not disclosed by Trump or his lawyers pursuant to the JDA can be disclosed to the prosecutor and can be used to prosecute Trump.

2.  The problem comes in separating what the witness, here Manafort, knows independent of the confidential information he received pursuant to the JDA.  If the prosecutor wants to prosecute Trump for a crime and uses information from a person in a JDA (here that would be Manafort), the prosecutor will have to prove that the prosecution is not based on any Trump confidential information that Manafort learned from Trump or his lawyers under the JDA.  Unless the parties in the criminal action can agree, that would require a Kastigar-like hearing where the prosecutor would have to prove that the case does not rely on that "tainted" information, directly or indirectly.  That can, in many cases, be an impossible burden and would require suppression of any possibly tainted evidence or even, if so intertwined with the prosecution, dismissal of the case.

3.  For this reason, JDAs can sometimes limit the benefit that prosecutors can get from cooperation from participants in a JDA and make prosecutors less willing to strike a deal with the participant if it appears that the evidence the participant has is tainted or potentially tainted.  This requires delicate negotiations in reaching a cooperation agreement (usually by plea).  Accordingly, in complex multi-target investigations, the marginal or less important actors may want to either not join a JDA or limit and carefully document what is received under the JDA so that that participant can maintain maximum flexibility in cooperation/plea negotiations.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

San Diego Law School / Procopio Institute Program Oct 31st-Nov. 2d, 2018 (10/7/18; 10/8/18)

Tax crimes enthusiasts may be interested in this program offering :  14th Annual University Of San Diego School Of Law Procopio International Tax Institute, Oct 31st - Nov 2nd, 2018, here. The location is University of San Diego, Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice, Alcalá Park, San Diego, California.

Blog readers qualify for a special $150 discount at the following link with the following Discount Code:  TAXCR18USD.


Select sessions that may of particular interest to tax crimes enthusiasts:

Remaining Offshore Compliance Options and International Tax Topics
Daniel N. Price, Esq., Attorney - Office of Chief Counsel (SB/SE Division - IRS)
Lic. Jacqueline Arellanes, Central Administrator of International Tax - SAT

FATCA Criminal Indictments of Overseas Advisors (Attys/CPAs/FinAd)
Victor So Song, Esq., Founding Partner - Victor Song Consulting (former IRS CI Chief)
Steven Toscher, Esq. Esq., Partner - Hochman Salkin Rettig Toscher & Perez, P.C.
Patrick W. Martin, Esq. - Procopio

United States vs. Colliot: Defending Title 31 FBAR Penalties: Pre and Post Assessments, IRS and DOJ Policies and Strategy Post Colliot
Ms. Caroline D. Ciraolo, Esq. Partner - Kostelanetz & Fink (Former AAG DOJ Tax)
Sandra Brown, Esq., Partner - Hochman Salkin Rettig Toscher & Perez
Patrick W. Martin, Esq. - Procopio

New OECD Guidance to Disclose Information to Tax Authorities - Exchange of Information and Recent cases affecting Professional Duties of Confidentiality
Lic. Juvenal Lobato, Parner - Lobato Diaz Abogados
Lic. Nadja Ruiz Euler, Partner - Ernst & Young

U.S. Passport Revocations for "Seriously Delinquent Taxpayers" - IRS § 7345 & Role of DOJ, IRS, U.S. District Court and U.S. Tax Court.
Ms. Kristen Bailey, Esq., Director of Collection Policy, Small Business Self-Employed Division - IRS
Patrick W. Martin, Esq. - Procopio

I understand that other speakers or participants may be added and will update as I become aware of them.

Saturday, October 6, 2018

On Justice Kavanaugh in my Federal Tax Procedure Book (10/6/18)

We have a new Supreme Court Justice, Brett Kavanaugh.  I thought readers might be interested in this posting to my Federal Tax Procedure Blog.  Justice Kavanaugh in the Federal Tax Procedure Book (10/6/18), here.  Topics are:  justices, statutory interpretation (specifically textualism), originalism, legislative history, footnotes, and notes.

Court Orders Disgorgement of $50 Million Gross Receipts for Bullshit Tax Shelter (10/6/18)

I wrote yesterday on the bullshit tax shelter of the Exelon Corporation, a major corporation.  Today, I write on another, less sophisticated, genre of bullshit tax shelter -- those promoted to the less sophisticated.  I say less sophisticated because it was not wrapped in a smog of paper like Exelon and others of its genre and, at the end of the day, relies on less sophisticated techniques, principally overvaluation, that has been the problem in abusive tax shelters for years.

DOJ announced here that, in United States v. RaPower-3, LLC, et. al. (D. Utah 10/4/18), here, the Court (i) ordered abusive tax shelter promoters "to disgorge over $50 million in gross receipts" from the abusive tax shelter and "barred defendants from promoting and marketing the scheme and ordered them to take steps to ensure that the public is not further harmed by their actions." 

Key excerpts from the announcement:
Based upon evidence the government submitted to the court during a 12-day bench trial, the court found that the defendants engaged in a “massive fraud.” The court stated that the defendants “each knew, or had reason to know, that their statements about the tax benefits purportedly related to buying solar lenses were false or fraudulent.” 
The court stated that “[b]ecause of the manner in which Defendants promoted the scheme, the court concludes that $50,025,480 in gross receipts from the solar energy scheme came from money that rightfully belonged to the U.S. Treasury.” The court found that the defendants “obstructed discovery about their gross receipts and other topics involving their finances.” 
The court stated that the United States showed a “reasonable approximation” of the total gross receipts from lens sales. In addition, the court held that defendants would not be allowed any credit of operating expenses because such credits “are not consistent with principles of equitable disgorgement.” 
According to the opinion, defendant Neldon Johnson claimed to have invented purported solar energy technology involving solar thermal lenses placed in arrays on towers. The court found that to “make money from this purported solar energy technology, Johnson decided to sell a component of the purported technology: the solar lenses.” 
Under the proper circumstances, the Internal Revenue Code allows a taxpayer engaged in a trade or business certain tax deductions for expenses the taxpayer incurs while generating income. Likewise, if all of the requirements are met, the tax law allows an “energy credit” for certain “energy property.” 
However, in this case, the court concluded that the defendants “knew, or had reason to know, that their customers were not in a trade or business of leasing out solar lenses and, therefore, that their customers were not allowed the depreciation deduction or solar energy tax credit.” 
The opinion also concluded that the defendants made “gross valuation overstatements” when they sold lenses to customers. The court found that the defendants sold each lens for a total purported price of $3,500. The court stated that the evidence showed that the raw cost of each supposed “lens” was very low and found that “[d]efendants’ technology does not work, and is not likely to work to produce commercially viable electricity or solar process heat. Therefore, each ‘lens’ is just one component of an inoperable system. It is not a piece of sophisticated technology such that premium pricing is appropriate for it.” 
The court also barred defendants from promoting and marketing the scheme. The court stated that the defendants sold lenses using a multi-level marketing approach, and encouraged distributors to “bring still more people in to the multi-level marketing system and build an extensive ‘downline.’” The court concluded that, in this case, “[t]he toxic combination of multi-level marketing and misleading information creates an urgent need [for] an injunction.”  
The injunction requires, among other things, that the defendants stop making statements that a person who buys a lens is in a trade or business with respect to that lens; may lawfully claim a depreciation deduction or any other business expense deduction related to a solar lens; and may lawfully claim a solar energy credit related to a lens. 
Further, the court ordered that the defendants disclose, in their marketing materials for lenses that the court “has determined that the solar energy technology of RaPower-3 in place from 2005 to 2018 is without scientific validation or substance and ineligible for tax credits or depreciation by individual purchasers of lenses.” 
* * * * 
In the past decade, the Tax Division has obtained injunctions against hundreds of unscrupulous tax preparers and tax scheme promoters. Information about these cases is available on the Justice Department’s website. An alphabetical listing of persons enjoined from preparing returns and promoting tax schemes can be found here. If you believe that one of the enjoined persons or businesses may be violating an injunction, please contact the Tax Division with details (link sends e-mail).
JAT comments:

Friday, October 5, 2018

Reuters Article on End of Swiss Bank Secrecy and the Common Reporting Standard (10/5/18)

Michael Shields, Era of bank secrecy ends as Swiss start sharing account data (Reuters 10/6/18), here.  Excerpts:
The era of mystery-cloaked numbered Swiss bank accounts has officially come to a close as Switzerland, the world’s biggest center for managing offshore wealth, began automatically sharing client data with tax authorities in dozens of other countries. 
The Federal Tax Administration (FTA) said on Friday it had for the first time exchanged financial account data at the end of September under global standards that aim to crack down on tax cheats. 
* * * * 
The initial exchange was supposed to be with European Union countries plus nine other jurisdictions: Australia, Canada, Guernsey, Iceland, Isle of Man, Japan, Jersey, Norway and South Korea. 
* * * * 
About 7,000 banks, trusts, insurers and other financial institutions registered with the FTA collect data on millions of accounts and send them on the Swiss tax agency. The FTA in turn sent information on around two million accounts to partner states. It put no value on the accounts in question. 
The information includes the owner’s name, address, country of residence and tax identification number as well as the reporting institution, account balance and capital income. This lets authorities check whether taxpayers have correctly declared their foreign financial accounts. 
The annual data swap will expand next year to about 80 partner states, provided they meet requirements on confidentiality and data security. The OECD Global Forum on Transparency and Exchange of Information for Tax Purposes reviews states’ implementation of the accord.
JAT Comments:

Another BullShit Tax Shelter Rejected But With Slight Penalty (10/5/18)

In Exelon Corp. v. Commissioner, ___ F.3d ___, 2018 U.S. App. LEXIS 28023 (7th Cir. 2018), here, the Seventh Circuit affirmed the Tax Court's rejection of a bullshit tax shelter and rejection of a reasonable cause defense to the 20% § 6662 penalty.  I wrote earlier on the trial level case: Faulty Tax Shelter Opinions and Appraisals and Resulting Civil Penalties (Federal Tax Crimes Blog 9/24/16), here.

It is clear from the tenor of the decision that the Court of Appeals like the Tax Court (Judge Laro) was not impressed with the taxpayer's arguments.

I think some portion of the penalty discussion is worth excerpting (partially cleaned up):
One common method of demonstrating reasonable cause is to show reliance on the advice of a competent and independent professional advisor. American Boat, 583 F.3d at 481 (citing United States v. Boyle, 469 U.S. 241, 251 (1985) ("When an accountant or attorney advises a taxpayer on a matter of tax law, such as whether a liability exists, it is reasonable for the taxpayer to rely on that advice.")). 
Simply relying on a professional does not necessarily relieve a taxpayer of penalties. To constitute reasonable cause, the reliance must have been reasonable in light of the circumstances. This is a fact-specific determination with many variables, but the question turns on the quality and objectivity of the professional advice obtained." To establish the defense the taxpayer, at a minimum, must show that the advice was (1) based on all relevant facts and circumstances, meaning the taxpayer must not withhold pertinent information[;] and (2) not based on unreasonable factual or legal assumptions, including those the taxpayer knows or has reason to know are untrue. The taxpayer's education, sophistication, business experience, and purpose for entering the questioned transaction are also relevant factors to be considered. 
In the instant case, the tax court sustained the Commissioner's imposition of penalties based on its findings that the underpayments for those years were attributable to Exelon's negligence or disregard of rules or regulations. In doing so, the court necessarily rejected Exelon's "reasonable cause" defense of reliance on its professional advisors. In particular, the court found that Exelon did not rely in good faith on Winston's tax opinions because Exelon "knew or should have known" that Winston's conclusions were flawed in light of the "obvious inconsistency" of the physical return condition specified in the contracts and the capacity factors projected by Deloitte for the plants at the end of the subleases, which made exercise of the purchase options more likely. The tax court found that Exelon must have appreciated that it would be very expensive for the sublessees to sufficiently upgrade the plants to meet the return capacity requirements. Thus, the court concluded that Exelon must have understood that Winston's tax opinions, based on the Deloitte appraisals, were flawed. 
Exelon's attack on this finding mimics its argument that the tax court confused capacity factor with availability factor and thus compared apples to oranges in its determination that the sublessees were reasonably likely to exercise their purchase options. We rejected that argument above and we reject it again here. We agree with the tax court that as a sophisticated plant operator, Exelon knew or should have known that, given the way these transactions were structured and given what the tax court found to be tainted appraisals, it was reasonably likely, or even highly likely, that the sublessees would exercise their options. 
Exelon continues to argue that the Deloitte appraisals were not tainted by Winston's input. More importantly, it argues that even if the appraisals were tainted, Exelon had no way of knowing that and cannot be penalized for its reliance on Winston's opinions. The record is replete, however, with evidence that Exelon knew full well that Winston was supplying Deloitte with the necessary conclusions. Both Walter Hahn and Robert Hanley of Exelon were copied on the emails sent by Winston first to Stone and Webster and then to Deloitte. Indeed, it was Hahn who concluded that most of the requested conclusions were items for Deloitte, and sent the list of Winston's necessary appraisal conclusions to Deloitte multiple times. 
Whether reasonable cause exists, and the finding underlying that determination, are questions of fact which we review for clear error. We find no such error and affirm the tax court's conclusion that penalties are warranted under § 6662.
JAT Comments:  

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

New York Times Special Investigation Report on Trump Family Tax Avoidance/Evasion (10/2/18; 10/3/18)

The NYT has this report:  Trump Engaged in Suspect Tax Schemes as He Reaped Riches From His Father (NYT 10/2/18), here.

Some interesting excerpts without getting too much into the details laid out:
The line between legal tax avoidance and illegal tax evasion is often murky, and it is constantly being stretched by inventive tax lawyers. There is no shortage of clever tax avoidance tricks that have been blessed by either the courts or the I.R.S. itself. The richest Americans almost never pay anything close to full freight. But tax experts briefed on The Times’s findings said the Trumps appeared to have done more than exploit legal loopholes. They said the conduct described here represented a pattern of deception and obfuscation, particularly about the value of Fred Trump’s real estate, that repeatedly prevented the I.R.S. from taxing large transfers of wealth to his children. 
“The theme I see here through all of this is valuations: They play around with valuations in extreme ways,” said Lee-Ford Tritt, a University of Florida law professor and a leading expert in gift and estate tax law. “There are dramatic fluctuations depending on their purpose.” 
The manipulation of values to evade taxes was central to one of the most important financial events in Donald Trump’s life. In an episode never before revealed, Mr. Trump and his siblings gained ownership of most of their father’s empire on Nov. 22, 1997, a year and a half before Fred Trump’s death. Critical to the complex transaction was the value put on the real estate. The lower its value, the lower the gift taxes. The Trumps dodged hundreds of millions in gift taxes by submitting tax returns that grossly undervalued the properties, claiming they were worth just $41.4 million.
JAT Comments:

Court Grants Default Judgment on FBAR Nonwillful Penalty (10/2/18)

In United States v. Marstellar, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 164706 (W.D. Va. 2018), here, the Court granted default judgment against Marstellar for FBAR nonwillful penalties.  Marsteller failed to appear and respond.  Accordingly, the Court granted default judgment on the Government's complaint and a submission by the IRS FBAR Penalty Coordinator.  The penalty amount was $40,000 ($10,000 per year for four years).  The judgment amount was $44,295.89. including accrued interest and late-payment penalties.

NYT Article on Reduced IRS CI Criminal Tax Enforcement (10/2/18)

The New York Times has this article:   Jesse Eisinger and Paul Kiel, I.R.S. Tax Fraud Cases Plummet After Budget Cuts (NYT 10/1/18), here.  The article is quite good as a general discussion of the tax crimes enforcement problems.

I will first summarize some key points of the article and then include some excerpts related to offshore account enforcement that has been prominent source in postings on this blog.

1.  IRS criminal enforcement is way down.  As a result, "Provided you’re not a close associate of President Trump, there may never be a better time to be a tax cheat."  The statistic given is:  "Last year, the I.R.S.’s criminal division brought 795 cases in which tax fraud was the primary crime, a decline of almost a quarter since 2010."  I have not gotten behind that statistic.  I don't know what 795 cases means.  IRS CI does not bring cases.  DOJ Tax brings the cases (prosecutions).  I infer that the 795 may mean referrals to DOJ Tax.  But, I could not even verify that number.  The IRS does post its CI statistics here which show that the number of Tax Investigations (as opposed to Other Financial Crimes is way down through FY 2016, but the number of prosecution recommendations in tax investigations does not appear to be material down over the time period presented (from FY 2007 to FY 2016).  It is true that the number was higher in the most immediate 5 year period, but was lower most of the years before that.  Although not a direct comparison, I offer a statistics spreadsheet, here, which I maintain based on the IRS data book and the statistics link noted above.  (For those who review this spreadsheet, please review my note at the end of the spreadsheet that I just present the data plus calculated percentages from the data and do not attempt to reconcile the underlying data in the two Tables; also, I would appreciate any thoughts on how these statistics may be reconciled.)

2.  Criminal tax enforcement is central to the IRS's mission and important to encouraging compliance among the whole population of taxpayers.

3.  Criminal tax enforcement has been dramatically reduced by budget cuts and shift in priority of IRS CI.  JAT Note: I thought CI had reduced the shift in priority after the Webster Report in the late 1990s so that IRS could devote more of its limited resources to the type of tax enforcement that would support the general revenue function of the IRS.

4.  The budget constraints have resulted in dramatic reduction of CI special agents and reduction in the pipeline of referrals from civil agents.

5.  The following excerpts relate to offshore accounts: