The Internal Revenue Service has announced that the nation’s tax season will begin on Monday, January 29, 2018. As is typically the case, the annual opening of tax season is accompanied by well-publicized enforcement actions intended to warn potential tax cheats of the perils of filing a false tax return. This year is no different, with the announcement that reality television personality Michael “The Situation” Sorrentino and his brother, Marc Sorrentino, pleaded guilty today to violating federal tax laws.

Michael Sorrentino was a reality television personality who gained fame on “The Jersey Shore,” which first appeared on the MTV network.  According to documents and information provided to the court, he and his brother created businesses, such as MPS Entertainment LLC and Situation Nation Inc., to take advantage of Michael’s celebrity status. Michael Sorrentino admitted that in tax year 2011, he earned taxable income, including some that was paid in cash, and that he concealed a portion of his income to evade paying the full amount of taxes he owed.  He also made cash deposits into bank accounts in amounts less than $10,000, in an effort to ensure that these deposits would not come to the attention of the IRS.  Marc Sorrentino admitted that for tax year 2010, he earned taxable income and that he assisted his accountants in preparing his personal tax return by willfully providing them with false information and fraudulently underreporting his income.  Gregg Mark, the accountant for the Sorrentino brothers, previously pleaded guilty in 2015 to conspiring to defraud the United States with respect to their tax liabilities.

Sentencing is scheduled for April 25, 2018.

Today’s announcement was replete with the usual warnings to would-be tax evaders from Justice Department and IRS officials:

“Today’s pleas are a reminder to all individuals to comply with the tax laws, file honest and accurate returns and pay their fair share,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Zuckerman. “The Tax Division is committed to continuing to work with the IRS to prosecute those who seek to cheat the system, while honest hardworking taxpayers play by the rules.”

“What the defendants admitted to today, quite simply, is tantamount to stealing money from their fellow taxpayers,” said U.S. Attorney Carpenito. “All of us are required by law to pay our fair share of taxes. Celebrity status does not provide a free pass from this obligation.”

 “As we approach this year’s filing season, today’s guilty pleas should serve as a stark reminder to those who would attempt to defraud our nation’s tax system,” stated Jonathan D. Larsen, Special Agent in Charge, IRS-Criminal Investigation, Newark Field Office.  “No matter what your stature is in our society, everyone is expected to play by the rules, and those who do not will be held accountable and brought to justice.”

It is well-known that the IRS and Justice Department typically increase the frequency of their press releases announcing enforcement activity in the weeks leading up to the tax filing deadline. In fact, academic research confirms that these agencies issue a disproportionately large number of tax enforcement press releases as “Tax Day” approaches:

Every spring, the federal government appears to deliver an abundance of announcements that describe criminal convictions and civil injunctions involving taxpayers who have been accused of committing tax fraud. Commentators have occasionally suggested that the government announces a large number of tax enforcement actions in close proximity to a critical date in the tax compliance landscape: April 15, “Tax Day.” These claims previously were merely speculative, as they lacked any empirical support. This article fills the empirical void by seeking to answer a straightforward question: When does the government publicize tax enforcement? To conduct our study, we analyzed all 782 press releases issued by the U.S. Department of Justice Tax Division during the seven-year period of 2003 through 2009 in which the agency announced a civil or criminal tax enforcement action against a specific taxpayer identified by name. Our principal finding is that, during those years, the government issued a disproportionately large number of tax enforcement press releases during the weeks immediately prior to Tax Day compared to the rest of the year and that this difference is highly statistically significant. A convincing explanation for this finding is that government officials deliberately use tax enforcement publicity to influence individual taxpayers’ perceptions and knowledge of audit probability, tax penalties, and the government’s tax enforcement efficacy while taxpayers are preparing their annual individual tax returns.

Joshua D. Blank and Daniel Z. Levin, When Is Tax Enforcement Publicized?, 30 Virginia Tax Review 1 (2010).

As “Tax Day 2018” approaches, we can expect similar — and more frequent — announcements intended to deter would-be tax cheats from filing false tax returns.

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Barely two months after being convicted of running a billion dollar illegal payday lending enterprise, professional racecar driver Scott Tucker was indicted today by a grand jury on federal charges of failing to report millions in income from that business. Also indicted today was Tucker’s accountant, who is charged with aiding in Tucker’s filing of a false tax return. The charges were filed in federal court in Kansas, where Tucker and his accountant reside.

The indictment alleges that in 2008 Tucker orchestrated a sham sale of his company CLK Management to a Native American tribe in Miami for $120,000. In fact, Tucker continued to control CLK and a new entity, AMG Services, Inc. After the sale, other people and entities were listed as owners of Tucker’s payday lending businesses. In fact, Tucker controlled the daily operations of those business, and he was alleged to be the source of funds being lent and he bore the risk of loans not being repaid.

W. Brett Chapin was a Certified Public Accountant who prepared Tucker’s tax returns for 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2011. The indictment alleges that on October 19, 2009, Tucker signed a 2008 tax return prepared by Chapin that failed to report more than $42.5 million in income from Tucker’s payday lending businesses. The indictment also alleges that on October 20, 2011, Tucker signed a 2010 tax return prepared by Chapin that failed to report more than $75 million in income from Tucker’s payday lending businesses.

In October, Tucker and a co-defendant were convicted after a five-week jury trial in federal court in Manhattan on all counts against them for operating a nationwide internet payday lending enterprise that systematically evaded state laws in order to charge illegal interest rates. “Payday loans” refer to small, short-term, high-interest, unsecured consumer loans, often made over the internet. The defendants had claimed that their $3.5 billion payday lending business was actually owned and operated by Native American tribes, and was thereby immune from state usury laws because of sovereign immunity, a legal doctrine which generally prevents states from enforcing their laws against Native American tribes. The defendants’ business made loans to more than 4.5 million individuals. Many of these loans were issued in states with laws that expressly forbid lending at the exorbitant interest rates charged.

Today’s indictment of Tucker on tax charges is notable for several reasons. First, based upon his conviction in the New York case on all counts – which include racketeering conspiracy, racketeering, wire fraud conspiracy, wire fraud, money laundering conspiracy, money laundering, and violating the Truth in Lending Act – Tucker faces an exorbitantly lengthy sentence. The RICO and money laundering counts provide for 20 year statutory maximum sentences, and given the government’s contention that Tucker ran a $3.5 billion payday lending business, he will likely face a sentence at the statutory cap. While some could argue that the government is “piling on” by bringing additional charges at this point, it is not unheard of for prosecutors to seek to indict defendants on tax charges separate and apart from a larger fraud case. In addition, Tucker will almost certainly appeal his payday lending conviction, and the tax charges (which are presumably easier to prove) will provide the government with additional leverage (and protection) in the event that Tucker’s payday lending conviction is reversed in whole or in part on appeal.  On the tax charges, Tucker similarly faces significant sentencing exposure if convicted:  with over $117 million in unreported income for 2009 and 2010, the tax loss will easily fall within the “greater than $25 million” and “less than $65 million” range in the tax table of the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines (2T1.1).  With a tax loss in this range, the Sentencing Guidelines conservatively call for a sentence in the range of 78 to 97 months, without taking into account criminal history points and other adjustments which almost certainly will apply and serve to increase the sentencing range.

Second, the indictment in the New York case did not include any tax charges, because venue in tax cases is based upon where the tax return is filed. As a resident of Kansas, Tucker filed his federal income tax returns in that state, and therefore the tax charges had to be brought separately from the New York case in the District of Kansas. The government presumably waited to indict Tucker on tax charges until after the payday lending case was completed.

Third, the Kansas indictment includes charges against Tucker’s accountant pursuant to 26 U.S.C. § 7206(2), which allows the government to prosecute anyone who willfully aids and assists in the filing of a tax return that is false as a material matter. The indictment alleges that Chapin was aware that Tucker actually controlled the payday lending entities despite the purported sale to the Miami tribe, and that during an audit of Tucker’s tax returns, Chapin repeatedly misled the Internal Revenue Service as to the location of the Tucker’s books and records. The indictment further charges that Chapin prepared Tucker’s 2010 personal income tax return which failed to report a whopping $75 million in income from Tucker’s payday lending business. The indictment also alleges that Chapin prepared Tucker’s 2009 personal income tax return which failed to report $42.5 million in income, but the criminal six-year statute of limitations for this return has expired so neither Tucker nor Chapin were charged with respect to this particular return.