Thursday, June 30, 2022

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

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

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

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

Some interesting items:

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 29, 2022

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

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

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

Special Agents Assisting the Grand Jury Make Surprise Visit.

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

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

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

 Denial of Good Faith Jury Instruction for Tax Perjury.

Saturday, June 25, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 21, 2022

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

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

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

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

Added 6/22/22 at 1:40 pm: 

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 15, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 7, 2022

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

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

The steps in the Court of Appeals reasoning were:

1. Collins had unreported foreign accounts.

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

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

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

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