Our colleague Ernest Badway writes about a recent decision in a federal criminal case rejecting the defendant’s argument that there was no securities fraud because he was selling digital tokens. The case involved charges that the defendant had defrauded investors in an initial coin offering. Ernie writes that “[o]ne of the big takeaways from this case is that courts, at least, initially, seem to be reluctant to claim crypto instruments are not securities. It almost appears that, like everyone else, courts such as the one in the EDNY are looking for more guidance, and are reluctant to make any major pronouncements about the status of such items as digital tokens.” You can read Ernie’s article, which is posted to the Securities Compliance Sentinel blog, here.

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Your company is under investigation. You hire outside counsel to debrief your employees about the allegations. But are the interviews privileged? Do you have to provide each employee with his or her own attorney?

The fourth episode of Matthew D. Lee’s new five-part podcast, “Federal Agents at the Door,” cuts through the confusion surrounding legal representation during an investigation. A partner in the firm’s White-Collar Criminal Defense & Regulatory Compliance Practice, Matt explains why it’s vitally important to make sure your employees also understand who’s representing whom.

Previous installments of Matt’s podcast provided an overview of federal investigations, discussed how to respond when agents arrive at your door and detailed important steps companies should take to preserve evidence.

If you prefer, download the transcript.

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We recently wrote on the new proposed regulations addressing the availability of charitable deductions when taxpayers receive or expect to receive corresponding state or local tax credits for contributions.  The proposed regulations require a taxpayer who makes a contribution to a charitable organization to reduce his charitable deduction by any state or local tax credit that he receives or expects to receive.  Readers may find more about the proposed regulations here.  After the proposed regulations were issued, the IRS published a clarification for business taxpayers.  The IRS clarified that business taxpayers who make business-related payments to charities or government entities for which the taxpayers receive state or local tax credits may still generally deduct the payments as business expenses.  This general deductibility rule is not affected by the proposed regulations dealing with charitable deductions for donations to state or local tax credit programs.

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The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018 eases the requirements for combat-zone contractors to claim the foreign earned income exclusion.  A U.S. citizen is generally taxed on his worldwide income.  The foreign earned income exclusion, however, allows a taxpayer to exclude foreign income from his gross income for U.S. tax purposes, up to a certain dollar threshold.  For 2018, the threshold is $103,900.

But the exclusion only applies to a taxpayer whose tax home is in a foreign country.  Under prior law, a taxpayer could not have a tax home in a foreign country if his “abode,” which is generally his home or residence, was in the U.S.  See Tax Court Broadens Foreign Earned Income Exclusion.  Before the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018, combat-zone contractors had difficulty qualifying for the foreign earned income exclusion because it was difficult to prove their abodes were not in the U.S.  The new law removes the “abode” requirement by providing that a contractor who supports the U.S. Armed Forces in a combat zone is entitled to the foreign earned income exclusion even if his “abode” is in the U.S.  The new law went into effect in 2018.  This is a significant development for contractors supporting the military overseas.

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The Internal Revenue Service Large Business and International division (LB&I) has announced the approval of five additional compliance campaigns. LB&I announced on January 31, 2017, the rollout of its first 13 campaigns, followed by 11 campaigns on November 3, 2017, five campaigns on March 13, 2018, six campaigns on May 21, 2018, and five more on July 2, 2018. In addition, LB&I continues to review the tax reform legislation enacted on December 22, 2017, to determine which existing campaigns, if any, could be impacted as a result of a change in the law.

LB&I is moving toward issue-based examinations and a compliance campaign process in which it decides which compliance issues that present risk require a response in the form of one or multiple treatment streams to achieve compliance objectives. This approach makes use of IRS knowledge and deploys the right resources to address those issues. The campaigns are the culmination of an extensive effort to redefine large business compliance work and build a supportive infrastructure inside LB&I. Campaign development requires strategic planning and deployment of resources, training and tools, metrics and feedback. LB&I is investing the time and resources necessary to build well-run and well-planned compliance campaigns.

These five additional campaigns were identified through LB&I data analysis and suggestions from IRS employees. LB&I’s goal is to improve return selection, identify issues representing a risk of non-compliance, and make the greatest use of limited resources.

The five campaigns selected for this rollout are:

  • IRC Section 199 – Claims Risk Review

Public Law 115-97 repealed the Domestic Production Activity Deduction (DPAD) for taxable years beginning after December 31, 2017.  This campaign addresses all business entities that may file a claim for additional DPAD under IRC Section 199. The campaign objective is to ensure taxpayer compliance with the requirements of IRC Section 199 through a claim risk review assessment and issue-based examinations of claims with the greatest compliance risk.

  • Syndicated Conservation Easement Transactions

The IRS issued Notice 2017-10, designating specific syndicated conservation easement transactions as listed transactions, requiring disclosure statements by both investors and material advisors. This campaign is intended to encourage taxpayer compliance and ensure consistent treatment of similarly situated taxpayers by ensuring the easement contributions meet the legal requirements for a deduction, and the fair market values are accurate. The initial treatment stream is issue-based examinations. Other treatment streams will be considered as the campaign progresses.

  • Foreign Base Company Sales Income: Manufacturing Branch Rules

In general, foreign base company sales income (FBCSI) does not include income of a controlled foreign corporation (CFC) derived in connection with the sale of personal property manufactured by such corporation. However, if a CFC manufactures property through a branch outside its country of incorporation, the manufacturing branch may be treated as a separate, wholly owned subsidiary of the CFC for purposes of computing the CFC’s FBCSI, which may result in a subpart F inclusion to the U.S. shareholder(s) of the CFC.

The goal of this campaign is to identify and select for examination returns of U.S. shareholders of CFCs that may have underreported subpart F income based on certain interpretations of the manufacturing branch rules. The treatment stream for the campaign will be issue-based examinations.

  • 1120F Interest Expense/Home Office Expense

This campaign addresses compliance on two of the largest deductions claimed on Form 1120-F, U.S. Income Tax Return of a Foreign Corporation. Treasury Regulation Section 1.882-5 provides a formula to determine the interest expense of a foreign corporation that is allocable to their effectively connected income. The amount of interest expense deductions determined under Treasury Regulation Section 1.882-5 can be substantial. Treasury Regulation Section 1.861-8 governs the amount of Home Office expense deductions allocated to effectively connected income. Home Office Expense allocations have been observed to be material amounts compared to the total deductions taken by a foreign corporation.

The campaign compliance strategy includes the identification of aggressive positions in these areas, such as the use of apportionment factors that may not attribute the proper amount of expenses to the calculation of effectively connected income. The goal of this campaign is to increase taxpayer compliance with the interest expense rules of Treasury Regulation Section 1.882-5 and the Home Office expense allocation rules of Treasury Regulation Section 1.861-8. The treatment stream for this campaign is issue-based examinations.

  • Individuals Employed by Foreign Governments & International Organizations

In some cases, individuals working at foreign embassies, foreign consular offices, and various international organizations may not be reporting compensation or may be reporting it incorrectly. Foreign embassies, foreign consular offices and international organizations operating in the U.S. are not required to withhold federal income and social security taxes from their employees’ compensation nor are they required to file information reports with the Internal Revenue Service.

This lack of withholding and reporting results in unreported income, erroneous deductions and credits, and failure to pay income and Social Security taxes. Because this is a fluid population, there may be a lack of knowledge regarding tax obligations. This campaign will focus on outreach and education by partnering with the Department of State’s Office of Foreign Missions to inform employees of foreign embassies, consular offices and international organizations. The IRS will also address noncompliance in this area by issuing soft letters and conducting examinations.

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The Treasury Department recently issued proposed regulations addressing the availability of charitable deductions when taxpayers receive or expect to receive corresponding state or local tax credits for contributions.  The proposed regulations require a taxpayer who makes a contribution to a charitable organization to reduce his charitable deduction by any state or local tax credit that he receives or expects to receive.

Taxpayers have traditionally been allowed itemized deductions for paying state and local taxes.  The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act enacted last year, however, caped the deduction for payments of state and local taxes at $10,000.  This cap hits taxpayers in high tax states like New York, New Jersey, and California hardest because many taxpayers in those states pay over $10,000 in state and local taxes.  These states have attempted to circumvent the $10,000 cap by considering or passing new state and local tax credit programs.  The programs give taxpayers who make charitable contributions to state or local tax credit programs state or local tax credits, while also being designed to create federal charitable deductions for the same contributions.

The proposed regulations put an end to this strategy by limiting any federal charitable deduction by the state or local tax credit a taxpayer receives or expects to receive.  For example, suppose an individual pays a charitable organization $1,000.  In exchange for the payment, the individual receives a 70% state tax credit.  Under the proposed regulations, the individual’s charitable deduction is reduced by $700 (70% of $1,000) for federal tax purposes.  He may only take a $300 charitable deduction on his federal return.

The proposed regulations are in line with the Supreme Court’s charitable contribution jurisprudence.  The Supreme Court has held that a charitable contribution is a transfer of money or property without adequate consideration.  As a result, a payment is not a charitable contribution if the contributor expects a substantial benefit for the payment.  See United States v. American Bar Endowment, 477 U.S. 105, 116-118 (1986); see also Singer Co. v. United States, 449 F.2d 413, 422-423 (Ct. Cl. 1971).  Taxpayers who receive state or local tax credits for contributions receive substantial benefits for their contributions, so they are not entitled to charitable deductions.

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Your company is under investigation. Or maybe you suspect it will be in the future. What should you do with its computer files, documents and other potential evidence? Here’s a hint: step away from the paper shredder.

In episode three of his new five-part podcast, “Federal Agents at the Door,” Matthew D. Lee explains your obligation to preserve evidence. Matt, a former Justice Department trial attorney and partner in Fox Rothschild’s White-Collar Criminal Defense & Regulatory Compliance Practice, tells you how to avoid facing obstruction of justice charges.

In Episode One: Target, Subject or Witness? Matt provided an overview and explained how your status in a probe should affect your overall response. In Episode Two: Responding to a Warrant, he outlined how to respond when investigators arrive at your door. Now, he discusses why it’s important to preserve paper and electronic documents, even before an investigation is launched.

If you prefer, download the transcript.

August 23, 2018

Two weeks ago federal prosecutors announced criminal tax charges against the owners of five Chicago-area restaurants as part of an ongoing federal investigation into the underreporting of gross receipts using sales suppression software. The charges allege that the defendants willfully avoided paying the full amount of federal taxes by reporting gross receipts that were substantially lower than the true amounts. This case appears to be the largest and perhaps most significant federal criminal case to date against businesses that use sale suppression techniques to conceal revenue from tax authorities.

Commonly called “zappers,” sales suppression software programs run on a point-of-sale computers or cash registers and are used to secretly delete some or all cash transactions. The result is that the company’s books appear to be complete and accurate but are in fact false because they reflect fewer sales than were actually made. An article published by BNA last year reported that tax-zapping software costs states $21 billion in taxes annually and that 30 percent of the electronic cash registers, or point-of-sale systems, in the United States have a zapper installed.

To date, state attorneys general and revenue departments have taken the lead in cracking down on businesses that use sales suppression techniques. In the last two years, state authorities in Washington, Minnesota, Michigan, Illinois and Connecticut have successfully prosecuted criminal cases against businesses and their owners — primarily in the restaurant industry. Washington’s attorney general has been particularly aggressive in this area, filing earlier this year what he called the largest sales suppression case in the state’s history and two years ago what he called the “first-of-its-kind” zapper prosecution. In addition, numerous states have also passed laws outlawing the use of zappers and other types of sales suppression devices.

The Internal Revenue Service has been conspicuously absent from efforts to prosecute businesses and their owners for use of zappers, leading many to wonder whether the IRS would ever play a role or leave the anti-zapper efforts to the states. The only notable federal case to date involved John Yin, a salesman for a company that sold sales suppression software who was charged in December 2016. Yin sold zapper software to businesses in the Seattle area from at least 2009 through mid-2015. He pleaded guilty to assisting in the widespread distribution of zappers to dozens of customers in and around Seattle over the course of several years, and was eventually sentenced to 18 months in prison. While we expected a wave of federal prosecutions to follow the Yin case, that has not yet materialized (at least not publicly).

The federal charges in Chicago are the first federal charges in a zapper case since the Yin case. Five separate, and for the most part unrelated, business owners were charged in what was described as a “federal investigation targeting underreporting of gross receipts.” It appears that the federal investigation may have been prompted by a prior state case against one of the defendants. In August 2017, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan announced charges against Sandra Sanchez, owner of Cesar’s Restaurant in Chicago. In that case, Sanchez was charged with theft and tax evasion for defrauding the state out of more than $100,000 by using a sales suppression device to underreport more than $1 million in sales to the Illinois Department of Revenue. The Attorney General alleged that between January 2012 and October 2015, Sanchez used a zapper to falsify electronic sales records to avoid paying the full amount of sales and use taxes to the state each month. The Sanchez prosecution was the first zapper case prosecuted in Illinois, following the state’s enactment of anti-zapper legislation in 2013. The press release announcing the charges noted that IRS criminal investigators assisted in the investigation. The Illinois Attorney General has not issued any subsequent press releases regarding this case, so it is not clear whether Sanchez has pleaded guilty or will be proceeding to trial or is cooperating with investigators.

Sandra Sanchez was one of the five individuals charged federally in Chicago two weeks ago. And the press release announcing the charges noted that she was charged by information, not by indictment, indicating that she has likely agreed to plead guilty. Also charged at the same time was Israel Sanchez, owner of a restaurant called Cesar’s on Broadway. Like Sandra Sanchez, Israel Sanchez was charged by information, indicating that he too is likely to plead guilty.

Given the prior state charges filed against Sandra Sanchez, and the apparent forthcoming federal guilty pleas by both Sandra Sanchez and Israel Sanchez, it may well be the case that one or both of these individuals are cooperating and assisting state and federal investigators with their zapper investigation. Indeed, last week’s Justice Department press release indicates that the federal investigation is ongoing and therefore may be more broadly focused than the five individuals charged. Indeed, the special agent-in-charge of the IRS Criminal Investigation Division in Chicago warned that these charges are just tip of the iceberg, and that cash-intensive businesses using zappers are at risk: “This is only the beginning. I want to warn those restaurants, gas stations, convenience stores and other establishments that are currently using or thinking of using sales suppression software, that we are on to you and your methods.”

Three other individuals were charged in Chicago last week: Shuli Zhao, owner of Katy’s Dumpling House in Westmont; Chun Xu Zhang, owner of Sushi City in Downers Grove; and Quan Shun Chen, owner of Hunan Spring in Evanston. It is not clear from the press release and charging documents whether these three individuals are related to each other or if they are related to the other two individuals charged, Sandra Sanchez and Israel Sanchez. Unlike the Sanchezes, these three business owners were charged by indictments, indicating that they are contesting the charges and are not pleading guilty.

The Chicago cases appear to be the most significant federal criminal case alleging use of tax zapper technology to date. As noted, for the past several years, state authorities have been taking a lead role in investigating and prosecuting businesses that use sale suppression technology. The Chicago cases are significant not only because they represent the first federal charges against business owners in many years (as opposed to the Yin case, which involved a zapper salesman) but also because they appear to be part of a larger investigation of Chicago-area businesses that use zappers. With guilty pleas expected from two of the individuals charged, at least one of those individuals likely cooperating, and the investigation ongoing, we anticipate seeing more federal charges arising out of this likely widening-probe.

Reprinted with permission from Law360. (c) 2018 Portfolio Media. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. All rights reserved.

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