Friday, February 23, 2024

Tax Court Denies WB Claim Made Contemporaneously With Target Taxpayer’s Voluntary Disclosure (2/23/24)

In Whistleblower 14376-16W v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2024-22, GS here, the Court held that the Whistleblower (“WB”) was entitled to no relief from the Whistleblower Office’s denial of an award. The opinion establishes no new precedent, which is why it is a Memo opinion. The opinion does offer some interesting aspects, which I will discuss here.

1. The WB claim targeting several taxpayers was made a couple of months before some of the taxpayers made a request to CI to participate in an IRS voluntary disclosure program.  (It is not clear whether the request was under one of the offshore variants or was under the general voluntary disclosure program (see p. 3 n. 6); it makes no difference, however, for the point I discuss here, so I will just call it a VDP request.) The VDP request was made before any submissions (amended returns, etc.) required to complete voluntary disclosure; those submissions were delayed a substantial period. After the voluntary disclosure request, the WBO processed and sent to the field the WB claim after CI received the VDP request. The IRS subsequently undertook the work required to determine and collect substantial tax based on the taxpayers' submissions. The IRS says that, although its examination function received the WB information, it took no action based on the information. The record before the Court (essentially the record related to the WB claim and related items) supported the IRS’s claim that the proceeds generated from its activity did not rely on the WB claim and information in the WB claim.

2. The Court denied the WB’s sweeping and broadly written discovery requests designed to ferret out all documents and information that could test even tangentially the IRS’s narrative that no collected proceeds resulted from the WB information (including whether the record the IRS submitted to the Court was complete). In part, the WB requested documents and information in the voluntary disclosure package that, it claims, was “indirectly considered” in collecting the proceeds. (See pp. 33-37.) In part, the Court reasoned:

          Petitioner contends, however, that the WBO “indirectly considered” the VDP materials. As one court has aptly observed, “it is not entirely clear what it means to indirectly consider documents or materials.” Amgen Inc. v. Hargan, 285 F. Supp. 3d 397, 404 (D.D.C. 2017) (treating the “indirect consideration” concept as “captur[ing] materials that are necessary to understand the documents that the agency directly relied upon” and denying motion to supplement the administrative record with documents intended to test a decision by the Food and Drug Administration for consistency with previous decisions). The caselaw provides no general test.24 But it does suggest some guiding principles. One court has observed that if an agency's final decision was based “on the work and recommendations of subordinates, those materials should be included as well.” Amfac Resorts, L.L.C. v. U.S. Dep't. of Interior, 143 F. Supp. 2d 7, 12 (D.D.C. 2001) (collecting cases), aff'd in part, rev'd in part 282 F.3d 818 (D.C. Cir. 2002), vacated in part sub nom. Nat'l Park Hosp. Ass'n v. Dep't of Interior, 538 U.S. 803 (2003). On the other hand, it is not always necessary to include in the administrative record source information upon which agency staff relied in making their recommendations to the agency decisionmakers if other information in the record obviates the need to consider the source information independently. See, e.g., James Madison Ltd. by Hecht v. Ludwig, 82 F.3d 1085, 1095 (D.C. Cir. 1996) (affirming denial of discovery and record supplementation with respect to source documents that bank examiners had relied upon in making their bank-insolvency reports to the Comptroller of the Currency, where “detailed contemporaneous reports from the examiner-in-charge and members of her examination team explain[ed] how and why they reached their conclusions regarding the banks' reserves”); Cape Hatteras Access Pres. All., 667 F. Supp. 2d at 114 (denying motion to supplement the record with a biological report that the National Park Service had relied upon [*35] in developing an interim strategy that was before the Fish and Wildlife Service when it designated certain critical habitats, even though the biological report was referenced by several other documents in the administrative file).

Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Sixth Circuit Affirms Summary Judgment on FBAR Willful Penalty on Conduct Objectively Reckless (2/14/24)

I report this morning on United States v. Kelly, ___ F.4th ___ (6th Cir. 8/8/24), CA6 here and GS here. Kelly affirms the district court's approval of the FBAR willful penalty on motion for summary judgment.

I first offer the MS CoPilot (MS’s version of AI) explanation of the case:

Case Title: United States v. James J. Kelly, Jr.

Background:

• James J. Kelly, Jr., a U.S. citizen, opened an interest-bearing account at Finter Bank in Zurich, Switzerland in 2008.

• He designated the account as “numbered” to keep his name off the statements and requested that Finter retain account-related correspondence instead of mailing it to him.

Legal Context:

• Under the Bank Secrecy Act, individuals with foreign bank accounts containing $10,000 or more must annually file a Report of Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts (FBAR) with the U.S. Department of the Treasury.

• Failure to file an FBAR by the deadline can result in civil penalties. The penalty amount depends on whether the failure was accidental or willful.

Case Details:

• The government sued James Kelly, alleging that he willfully failed to timely file FBARs for the years 2013, 2014, and 2015.

• The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the government.

• Kelly’s failure to file was deemed a willful violation of the Bank Secrecy Act.

Outcome:

• The court affirmed the judgment, emphasizing that Kelly’s actions constituted a willful violation of the law.

• In summary, James Kelly’s failure to file FBARs for his foreign bank account led to civil penalties due to willful non-compliance with the Bank Secrecy Act.

Wednesday, February 7, 2024

Law Firm Tax Partner Sentenced in Germany to 3 1/2 Years for Fraudulent Tax Shelters (2/7/24)

An earlier news item finally reached my consciousness this morning and gave me a déjà vu experience. A Freshfields (prominent law firm) former tax partner who gave legal advice for clients to exploit an abusive tax shelter (aka bullshit tax shelter) was sentenced to 3 ½ years incarceration for his role. The shelter has attracted the name “Cum-Ex.” See e.g., Tom Sims & Kirstin Ridley, Former Freshfields partner sentenced to jail for German tax fraud (Reuters 1/30/24), here; and Olaf Storbeck, Freshfields’ former tax partner sentenced to 3½ years in jail (Financial Times 1/30/24), here.

I don’t know exactly how the scheme worked but the generic description is summarily described in the Reuters article:

Using such dividend stripping schemes, banks and investors would swiftly trade shares of companies around their dividend payout day, blurring stock ownership and allowing multiple parties to falsely reclaim tax rebates on dividends.

The following is from the Financial Times article:

The fraud centred on share deals executed before and after a stock’s dividend payments that duped governments to reimburse taxes that were never paid in the first place.

Maple Bank’s cum-ex transactions were equivalent to “organised [financial] crime”, Gröschel [the judge' said, adding that they were highly organised, took part over several years and led to “ludicrous” financial damage.

The aim of the transactions, said Gröschel, was not just to cut the amount of tax paid but to steal from the government. Johannemann’s legal advice was “a central contribution” to that crime, he added.

“Paying [a tax] once but reclaiming [it] twice just does not work,” he said, and that “a halfway talented elementary school pupil” was able to understand that concept.

* * * *

During the trial, Johannemann acknowledged he had “glossed over the fact that my legal advice was used for illegal means”, and said he had “totally failed” as a lawyer. The judge took issue with that assessment, saying he was certain Johannemann had been aware of all relevant details of the fraudulent transactions when giving his advice.

In his ruling Gröschel also took aim at Freshfields, accusing the tax practice of one of the world’s most prestigious law firms of having developed “its own business model” that specialised in giving affirmative advice on cum-ex transactions. The fees the law firm generated from such business were “almost ridiculously low”, he said.

The latter on fees caught my eye. My experience from the abusive tax shelter era was that the fees were very large compared to the hours expended delivering the opinions when they were "cookie-cutter" opinions marketed to many taxpayers. The excess fees were a form of “get out of jail free’ insurance premium to the taxpayers paying the fees. Viewed alone from a single transaction, the excess fee would be ridiculously low, but when marketed widely among wealthy and high-income earners, the fees really could add up to ridiculous amounts. See e.g., More on the Daugerdas Case - The Role of Nonpromoter Enablers (Federal Tax Crimes Blog 6/5/11), here.

Saturday, February 3, 2024

Tax Lawyer of Some Notoriety Is Again in the News (2/3/24)

 I previously blogged on a tax lawyer, John Anthony Castro, a tax lawyer of some notoriety in the tax community. Repeat Tax Player and Republican Presidential Candidate Loses Unauthorized Return Information Disclosure Suit on Appeal (Federal Tax Procedure Blog 12/24/25), here. I noted in the blog that Castro was a Republican candidate for President; I reported on a Fifth Circuit disposition of a claim he made against the IRS and his candidacy for President.

I have two developments to report:

1. Newsweek recently reported that Castro is suing Clarence Thomas under the Virginia Fraud Against Taxpayers Act, Code of Virginia, Article 19.1 (“VFATA”), here.  I am not familiar with the VFATA, but it appears to be a state parallel to a federal qui tam action, a suit to recover for the government. Excerpts from the article are:

           The complaint, which was shared with Newsweek, alleges that in violation of VFATA, "Clarence Thomas knowingly presented or caused to be presented a false and fraudulent claim (i.e., his 2005 Virginia State Income Tax Return) to the Virginia Department of Taxation on or about April 15, 2016, that failed to report income from discharge of indebtedness."

           Thomas has faced immense scrutiny and calls for his resignation after it was reported that he failed to disclose several transactions, including a $267,230 loan that he received from wealthy friend Anthony Welters. Last year, an investigation from the Senate Finance Committee revealed that Thomas never repaid a "substantial portion" of that loan, raising concerns about whether the justice properly reported it in his tax filings.

          "Under Section 108 of the Internal Revenue Code, he would have had a legal obligation to report [the loan] as taxable income and the tax alone would have been, probably $40,000 or $50,000. That's a third of his annual salary," Castro said on Friday. "And that's when I was like, 'There's no way he reported that because that'd be financially disastrous for him.'"

          Castro is suing Thomas under VFATA, which allows private citizens anywhere in the country to bring a claim against a Virginia resident for making a knowingly false or fraudulent claim to the commonwealth for money or property, essentially empowering regular Americans to take on the role of a de factor agent of the Virginia attorney general.

          "It basically allows you to bring a tax enforcement action against a taxpayer," Castro said of the law.

          Castro said he had planned to file the suit last year but claims that Trump coordinated with the Internal Revenue Service in retaliation against his activities "undermining the political objectives of the Trump Administration."

          "Right when I'm going to level these accusations against Clarence Thomas for filing false and fraudulent returns, what happens to me? I get accused of false and fraudulent returns," Castro said.

          "They intentionally devised this plan of, 'Let's accuse him of what he's about to accuse Clarence Thomas of, it's going to completely discredit him. And if he brings this claim, nobody's going to believe him," he continued. "But, of course, I still want to go forward with it."

          Asked about whether he thinks his lawsuits against Thomas and Trump will fuel speculations about whether or not he was a conservative, Castro insisted he was still a Republican.

          "I'm a very, very stubbornly principled person and if I feel that somebody broke the law, I'm going to hold them accountable," he said. "Just like Trump for January 6 and Clarence Thomas for this sham loan." 

Note that Castro claims that Trump and the IRS coordinated this alleged retaliatory indictment. That is an interesting pairing.

Thursday, January 25, 2024

Tax Court Again Declines to Reconsider Its Holding that the Preparer's Fraud without the Taxpayer's Fraud Invokes Unlimited Statute of Limitations (1/25/24)

 Long-time readers of this blog and the parallel blog Federal Tax Procedure may recall that I have had several postings on the issue of whether § 6501(c) unlimited statute of limitations for fraudulent returns requires (i) the taxpayer's fraud or (ii) may be a third party's fraud that is incorporated in the taxpayer's return without the taxpayer's fraud. The classic case is a preparer's fraud, but could also include fraud on an information return (such as a K-1 for partnership flow-through reporting).

At the end of this blog, I list significant Federal Tax Procedure or Federal Tax Crimes postings on the issue. Basically, the state of play was that the Tax Court held in a precedential decision that the taxpayer's fraud is not required. Allen v. Commissioner, 128 T.C. 37 (2007). The Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit held that the taxpayer's fraud is required. BASR P'ship v. United States, 795 F.3d 1338 (Fed. Cir. 2015). In Finnegan v. Commissioner, 926 F.3d 1261 (11th Cir. 2019), the Court affirmed the Tax Court's Allen holding that the taxpayer waived the statute of limitations argument in the Tax Court.

In Murrin v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2024-10, TA here, decided yesterday, the Tax Court held that Allen was still the interpretation the Tax Court will apply despite the holding in BASR. The Murrin opinion is 13 pages long and analyzes why BASR was not sufficiently persuasive to justify reconsidering its precedential holding in Allen.

BASR is not binding precedent in Murrin under the Tax Court's Golsen rule because appellate authority is only binding when in the Circuit to which an appeal would be taken in the case (barring stipulation otherwise). Mrs. Murrin lived in New Jersey when she filed the Tax Court petition. Thus, her appeal would be to the Third Circuit which has no authority in point, thus requiring the Tax Court to apply its own authority under Golsen.

Thursday, January 11, 2024

Article Recommendation on Sentencing in Tax Cases-Amendment to Guidelines (1/11/24)

I recommend the following post: Evan Davis, Major Sentencing Guideline Changes for Most Tax Offenders, With More on the Way: ABA Sentencing Panel, here. It is short and, for the subject, feature packed, so I will not summarize it here.

Wednesday, January 10, 2024

DOJ Tax Publicizes Sentencings and Plea Agreements of Syndicated Conservation Easement Enablers; Where Are the Taxpayers (1/10/24)

DOJ Tax issued a press release about sentencing and guilty pleas of enablers in abusive, illegal (maybe redundant) syndication easement tax shelters. Two Tax Shelter Promoters Sentenced to 25 Years and 23 Years in Billion-Dollar Syndicated Conservation Easement Tax Scheme; Two More CPAs Plead Guilty (Press Release # 24-29 1/9/23), here.

The lengths of the sentences are noteworthy.

The two other individuals pled guilty to a single count each of the Klein/defraud conspiracy, thus capping their potential sentences each to 5 years. Of course, they were not the masterminds of the fraudulent tax shelter scheme, but their pleas indicate that they willfully participated.

Of course, it is late in the Syndicated Conservation Easement game, so enablers in the game should be on notice now that they can be caught and punished. How much effect this will have as a future deterrent is unknown because, I suspect, many who know the downside will attempt maneuvers to prevent the IRS or DOJ Tax from discovering their complicity in such conduct. Most economic crime violators (including enablers) do not think they will be caught or their skullduggery will be understood.

My only comment relates to what I call the elephant in the room—the taxpayers willfully participating in such schemes. My experience in these elaborate abusive shelters is that well-heeled taxpayers are also complicit. Those taxpayers who are complicit feel (or at least hope) that the blizzard of paper (including fake opinions and appraisals) and participation of facially expert promoters will protect them from penalties, civil and criminal, thus giving them cost-free access to the audit lottery. But those who consulted independent counsel (and many, probably most, did at least in the Son-of-Boss shelters and, I suspect, in the Syndicated Conservation Easement Shelters) would have known the shelters did not work.

If the IRS and DOJ Tax want to discourage abusive tax shelters, it should prosecute the taxpayers involved (or at least enough of them, the more egregious ones, to send the message to the abusive tax shelter taxpayer community that there is risk of a criminal reckoning). Even where the enablers of the abusive tax shelters put together a package that facially seems to support the tax benefits claimed, most well-heeled tax shelter investors have their own independent legal counsel. Good advice would certainly include enough warning that the gambit is illegal and that their participation is willful. Prosecuting and convicting taxpayers would send the message of risk to all participating in abusive shelters and could substantially reduce the number of players involved by reducing the market for abusive tax shelters.