IRS Criminal Investigation (CI) Division

Ian M. Comisky and Matthew D. Lee have authored a Journal of Taxation article entitled “IRS in the Offing? Marinello Limits Tax Obstruction Prosecutions.” In their article, Ian and Matt write that its recent decision in Marinello, the U.S. Supreme Court dealt taxpayers a rare win by significantly constraining the government’s ability to employ the criminal tax obstruction of justice statute. Construing the Section 7212(a) “Omnibus Clause,” which makes it a felony “corruptly or by force” to “endeavo[r] to obstruct or imped[e]… the due administration of [the Internal Revenue Code],” the Court rejected the notion that the statute covers “virtually all governmental efforts to collect taxes.” Concerned that the statute could reach, among other things, cash payments to a babysitter, the Court instead engrafted seemingly important nexus requirements to the statute. Specifically, the Court held that the provision requires specific interference with targeted governmental tax-related proceedings, “such as an investigation, an audit, or other targeted administrative action.” It will be up to the lower courts to determine the full scope of this limitation. You can read the full article here.

Reprinted with permission from the October 2018 edition of the Journal of Taxation.  

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BitcoinWith “tax day” fast approaching, the Internal Revenue Service on Friday reminded taxpayers that income from virtual currency transactions is reportable on their income tax returns. As we have previously reported, the IRS has for some time been focusing significant attention on tax compliance with respect to virtual currency transactions. Last year, the IRS prevailed in its long-running litigation with Coinbase seeking the names of clients who engaged in virtual currency transactions during 2013-2015, and Coinbase recently announced that it would be disclosing transaction data to the IRS for 13,000 of its customers. In addition, the IRS-Criminal Investigation Division is ramping up its scrutiny of virtual currency transactions by assembling a team of specialized investigators in this area. With increased attention to virtual currency transactions, taxpayers who engaged in such transactions during 2017 must take care to ensure they are compliant with reporting obligations on their federal income tax returns.

The text of the IRS press release follows:

Virtual currency transactions are taxable by law just like transactions in any other property. The IRS has issued guidance in IRS Notice 2014-21 for use by taxpayers and their return preparers that addresses transactions in virtual currency, also known as digital currency.

Taxpayers who do not properly report the income tax consequences of virtual currency transactions can be audited for those transactions and, when appropriate, can be liable for penalties and interest.

In more extreme situations, taxpayers could be subject to criminal prosecution for failing to properly report the income tax consequences of virtual currency transactions. Criminal charges could include tax evasion and filing a false tax return. Anyone convicted of tax evasion is subject to a prison term of up to five years and a fine of up to $250,000. Anyone convicted of filing a false return is subject to a prison term of up to three years and a fine of up to $250,000.

Virtual currency, as generally defined, is a digital representation of value that functions in the same manner as a country’s traditional currency. There are currently more than 1,500 known virtual currencies. Because transactions in virtual currencies can be difficult to trace and have an inherently pseudo-anonymous aspect, some taxpayers may be tempted to hide taxable income from the IRS.

Notice 2014-21 provides that virtual currency is treated as property for U.S. federal tax purposes. General tax principles that apply to property transactions apply to transactions using virtual currency. Among other things, this means that:

– A payment made using virtual currency is subject to information reporting to the same extent as any other payment made in property.

– Payments using virtual currency made to independent contractors and other service providers are taxable, and self-employment tax rules generally apply.  Normally, payers must issue Form 1099-MISC.

– Wages paid to employees using virtual currency are taxable to the employee, must be reported by an employer on a Form W-2 and are subject to federal income tax withholding and payroll taxes.

– Certain third parties who settle payments made in virtual currency on behalf of merchants that accept virtual currency from their customers are required to report payments to those merchants on Form 1099-K, Payment Card and Third Party Network Transactions.

– The character of gain or loss from the sale or exchange of virtual currency depends on whether the virtual currency is a capital asset in the hands of the taxpayer.

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The White House released a statement on February 8, 2018 that President Trump nominated Charles Rettig as the new Commissioner of Internal Revenue Code for the remainder of a five year term that began in November 2017.  Unlike other recent presidential nominees that may have ignited fierce debate among political parties, Rettig’s nomination has been universally praised across party lines and by both the public and private sector of tax practitioners.  Rettig spent over thirty-five years in private practice defending clients against the IRS, but also recently published an article discussing the pitfalls of tax collection today and encouraging greater tax enforcement.  Although Rettig’s professional experience is in the private sector, he has consistently encouraged and advocated for voluntary tax compliance and tax enforcement.  Rettig will likely bring this perspective to his new position as IRS Commissioner.

Professional Experience

Rettig spent the last thirty-five years at Hochman, Salkin, Rettig, Toscher & Perez, P.C. in Beverly Hills, California representing clients in a variety of tax matters.  His peers and other national sources have deemed Rettig as a leading practitioner in tax fraud, tax law, and tax litigation and controversy.  See Charles P. Rettig, Biography, Hochman, Salkin, Rettig, Toscher & Perez, P.C.  Throughout his career, Rettig represented thousands of individual, business, and corporate taxpayers involved in civil examinations, tax collection matters, and criminal tax investigations, often representing clients against the IRS.

Concurrent to defending clients in tax matters, Rettig was appointed by the IRS to serve as Chair of the IRS Advisory Counsel (“IRSAC”), and was an active member since 2008.  The IRSAC receives commentary from the public regarding the public’s perception of IRS activities.  The IRSAC then advises the IRS Commissioner on its findings to encourage the public’s involvement regarding tax administration policy, programs, and initiatives.  See Internal Revenue Service Advisory Council Facts, IRS.

With Rettig’s professional backdrop in mind, an analysis of Rettig’s recent publication regarding IRS tax enforcement paints a full picture of Rettig’s viewpoints.  These viewpoints will most likely follow Rettig to his position as IRS Commissioner.

Viewpoint on the IRS and Tax Enforcement

In a fall 2017 issue of the Journal of Tax Practice and Procedure, Rettig published an article entitled A Lesson in Accountability and IRS Enforcement.  Overall, Rettig sets a tone for the need for a new era of increased tax enforcement. The article addresses three main areas: (1) facts on the IRS and current tax collection efforts; (2) the underlying causes of the problems with tax collection and enforcement; and (3) proposed solutions to increase tax collection.

Tax Facts

After providing statistics on the billions of tax dollars collected by the IRS, Rettig explains the current tax gap.  The gross tax gap is the difference between the amount of tax imposed on taxpayers in any given year and the amount that taxpayers voluntarily and timely pay.  The gross tax gap from 2008 to 2010 is about $458 billion.  The net tax gap is the portion of the gross tax gap that never gets paid.  It is the gross tax gap less the tax that the IRS will subsequently collect, either through voluntary payments or IRS enforcement.  Rettig says that it is estimated that the IRS will be able to collect $52 billion of the gross tax gap, leaving a net tax gap of $406 billion.

Problems with Closing the Tax Gap

Rettig addresses three issues that lead to the tax gap.  First, Rettig explains the direct causes of the tax gap: underreporting income, underpaying taxes owed, and not filing taxes at all.  Of those three, underreporting accounts for the greatest portion of the tax gap: $387 billion.  Underpayment accounts for $39 billion and non-filing accounts for $32 billion.  In addressing underreporting, Rettig explains that IRS research shows that people that have federal taxes withheld from income report 99% of their income.  Taxpayers that have reporting requirements under the law also tend to report almost all of their income (96%).  The problem lies with taxpayers that are not subject to withholding or information reporting, with that group only reporting only 68% of their income, and sole proprietors often reporting only 48% of their income.

Second, Rettig highlights that the IRS currently has a historically low number of enforcement agents, which is most likely attributable to the IRS budget.  Rettig cautions that the resource-challenged IRS impacts tax enforcement efforts, which in turn explains another contributing factor to the billion dollar tax gap.

Lastly, Rettig explains that the IRS relies on voluntary compliance.  Rettig states that research shows that increasing civil tax penalties do not increase voluntary compliance by taxpayers.  With IRS examination of taxpayers operating at low rate, Rettig suggests that this may only encourage tax payers to “push the compliance envelop” because it seems like there is not much risk of detection from the IRS.

Proposed Solutions to Close the Tax Gap

Rettig offers three solutions that will target this billion dollar tax gap.  First, Rettig suggests that the IRS should “hunt” for under-reporters and non-filers.  He suggests that technology can help target the taxpayers that fall in the categories of significant underreporting through electronic programs designed to identify these tax payers.  Technology can also be used to identify those tax payers that underreport foreign income, with the cooperation of foreign governments.

Second, Rettig discusses the need for tax practitioners to enhance professional responsibilities within their own fields.  Although the IRS is the governmental tax enforcement agency, Rettig suggests that tax practitioners also play an important role in the voluntary compliance aspect of our tax system.  Specifically, Rettig states that attorneys, accountants, and other tax practitioners must make sure their clients follow the law and observe the appropriate standards set within each profession.  Rettig states, “Tax returns are not to be perceived as an offer to negotiate with the government–information set forth on a tax return, signed by a paid return preparer, must be accurate with a reasonable foundation and reasonable support for the characterization of items set forth within the return.”

Lastly, Rettig suggests that the only way to increase voluntary tax compliance is to increase tax enforcement.  If tax payers know that there is a significant risk of IRS detection associated with underreporting, underpayment, or non-filing, tax payers will be more likely to voluntarily comply.  Because Rettig stated that research shows that increased civil penalties alone do not create the needed effect of increased compliance, only increased tax enforcement through civil examination, field (in-person) examination, and investigation will create the needed effect of increased voluntary compliance by taxpayers.

Conclusion

In sum, Rettig offers both sides of the coin: extensive experience in advocating from the taxpayer’s point of view against the IRS and extensive experience with the inner workings of the IRS and the contributing factors to the billion dollar tax gap.  With this two-sided experience, taxpayers can expect a new frontier of the IRS focusing its resources on targeting the greatest causes of the tax gap, increasing examination of these taxpayers, and hopefully adding millions, if not billions, of uncollected tax revenue to the federal treasury.

BitcoinOn Friday, Coinbase, the largest U.S.-based Bitcoin exchange, notified approximately 13,000 of its customers that it would be turning over their account information to the Internal Revenue Service within 21 days.  This follows the decision by a federal court in November to uphold a “John Doe” summons issued by the IRS seeking such data from Coinbase due to concerns about tax non-compliance by Coinbase customers. In the Court’s ruling, Coinbase was ordered to hand over the following information for certain of its customers during the 2013-2015 time period: taxpayer ID, name, date of birth, address, and historical transaction records. As a result of this development, Individuals who are not tax-compliant with respect to their Coinbase holdings may need to take immediate remedial action to mitigate their potential civil and/or criminal exposure.

“John Doe” Summons to Coinbase

A “John Doe” summons is an information-gathering tool that is being used with increasing frequency by the IRS to obtain information and records about a class of unidentified taxpayers if the IRS has a reasonable belief that such taxpayers are engaged in conduct violating U.S. tax laws. Because the identities of the targeted taxpayers are unknown, the summons is denoted with a “John Doe” moniker. Expressly authorized by the Internal Revenue Code, a John Doe summons must first be approved by a federal judge before it can be served. The IRS sought to serve a summons on Coinbase because of its concern that the anonymous nature of virtual currencies like Bitcoin may allow users to engage in tax evasion and other illegal conduct:

Virtual currency, as generally defined, is a digital representation of value that functions in the same manner as a country’s traditional currency. There are nearly a thousand virtual currencies, but the most widely known and largest is bitcoin. Because transactions in virtual currencies can be difficult to trace and have an inherently pseudo-anonymous aspect, taxpayers may be using them to hide taxable income from the IRS.

In late 2016, a federal judge authorized the IRS to serve a “John Doe” summons on Coinbase seeking information about U.S. taxpayers who conducted transactions in virtual currency during 2013, 2014, and 2015. In court documents, the Justice Department stated that Coinbase was the fourth largest exchanger globally of Bitcoin and the largest exchanger in the United States. The Justice Department further stated that Coinbase offered buy/sell trading functionality in 32 countries, maintaining over 4.9 million wallets with wallet services available in 190 countries, serving 3.2 million customers, with $2.5 billion exchanged in Bitcoin. According to the IRS, only 2,500 taxpayers reported transactions in Bitcoin on their U.S. income tax returns during the three years in question, as compared to nearly 500,000 U.S. customers reported by Coinbase during the same period. Coinbase vigorously resisted the “John Doe” summons, and the matter has been in litigation for a full year before the court ruled in November that Coinbase had to comply.

Coinbase Customer Notification

Here is the text of the letter sent by Coinbase to its customers:

Subject: An important message from Coinbase

In December 2016, the Internal Revenue Service issued a summons demanding that Coinbase produce a wide range of records relating to approximately 500,000 Coinbase customers.  Coinbase fought this summons in court in an effort to protect its customers, and the industry as a whole, from unwarranted intrusions from the government. 

After a long process, the court issued an order that represents a partial, but still significant, victory for Coinbase and its customers: the order requires Coinbase to produce only certain limited categories of information from the accounts of approximately 13,000 customers. 

We are writing to let you know that the above-described court order requires us to produce information specific to your account.  

If you have concerns about this, we encourage you to seek legal advice from an attorney promptly. Coinbase expects to produce the information covered by the court’s order within 21 days.

For your reference, the court’s judgment can be found here. The case was filed in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California, Case No. 17-cv-01431-JSC. 

In addition, we also want you to know that because Coinbase received a summons on December 8, 2016, and more than six months passed before our challenges to the summons were resolved by the court, the period of limitations under sections 6501 and 6531 of the Internal Revenue Code (title 26 of the U.S. Code) were suspended beginning as of June 8, 2017 and continuing through the final resolution of Coinbase’s response to the summons. This may be relevant to the tax returns that you have filed for the 2013, 2014, and 2015 calendar years. If you have questions about your tax liability for those years, we strongly encourage you to consult with your tax advisor.

Regards,

The Coinbase Team

Once it receives the summoned data from Coinbase, the IRS will cross-check tax returns filed by the individuals in question to determine if they properly reported their Bitcoin trading gains and losses. Individuals who have not properly reported their Bitcoin holdings will likely be contacted by the IRS, and the nature of that contact will be dictated by the magnitude of each individual’s tax non-compliance. For Coinbase customers with a relatively small number of unreported transactions, the IRS may simply send a “soft” letter advising them to file amended tax returns. Coinbase users with a greater number of unreported transactions may be selected for audit and face penalties for not properly reporting Bitcoin transactions. The most egregious examples of non-compliance may well face criminal investigation by the IRS, if there is evidence those customers deliberately intended to evade their tax obligations by trading in Bitcoin. As we previously reported, the IRS-Criminal Investigation Division is ramping up its scrutiny of cryptocurrency transactions, assembling a specialized team of criminal investigators to build criminal tax evasion cases involving users of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies.

Immediate Action May Be Necessary for Affected Coinbase Customers

For individuals whose Coinbase account information is about to be released to the IRS, immediate action may be necessary. While the IRS has not yet announced whether it will unveil a voluntary disclosure program for crytopcurrency (similar to the popular and well-publicized Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Program for foreign bank accounts), the IRS continues to maintain a traditional voluntary disclosure program pursuant to which individuals can mitigate potential criminal exposure by promptly self-disclosing their non-compliance. As with the OVDP, time is of the essence because the IRS can deny a voluntary disclosure application if the IRS already knows of the taxpayer’s non-compliance, such as through information received as a result of a “John Doe” summons. In the context of the OVDP, the IRS has published a specific FAQ addressing this very point:

Once the Service or the Department of Justice obtains information under a John Doe summons, treaty request, or other similar action that provides evidence of a specific taxpayer’s noncompliance with the tax laws or Title 31 reporting requirements, that particular taxpayer will become ineligible for OVDP and Criminal Investigation’s Voluntary Disclosure Practice. For this reason, a taxpayer concerned that a party subject to a John Doe summons, treaty request, or similar action will provide information about him to the Service should apply to make a voluntary disclosure as soon as possible.

The IRS can be expected to apply the same principle to taxpayers whose data is turned over by Coinbase. As a result, taxpayers with Coinbase accounts who wish to make a voluntary disclosure would be well-advised to do so before Coinbase hands over their account information to the IRS.

Impact on Statute of Limitations

Coinbase’s letter to its customers contains an important warning regarding suspension the statute of limitations.  The Internal Revenue Code imposes strict time limits for the IRS to audit a tax return or to file criminal charges regarding a filed return. Ordinarily, the IRS has three years to commence a civil audit of a tax return (subject to certain exceptions), and six years to bring criminal charges. Because Coinbase filed a legal challenge to the “John Doe” summons served by the IRS, and more than six months passed before that challenge was resolved by the court, the applicable statutes of limitation were suspended for at least six months.  This means that the IRS has additional time to audit or investigate the 13,000 taxpayers whose data is being turned over to the IRS.

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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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August 29, 2017Law360

An unusual feature of this latest bank resolution is what the Justice Department characterizes as Prime Partners’ “voluntary and extraordinary cooperation” with the U.S. government. In early 2009, Prime Partners voluntarily implemented a series of remedial measures to stop assisting U.S. taxpayers in evading federal income taxes, before the initiation of any investigation by the U.S. government. The timing of these corrective actions is particularly notable, as the Justice Department announced its landmark deferred prosecution agreement with UBS AG, the largest bank in Switzerland, in February 2009, and the Internal Revenue Service unveiled its Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Program approximately 30 days later. In the midst of the announcement of the UBS resolution, many other Swiss banks were advising their U.S. clients to transfer their account holdings to other, smaller Swiss banks in order to avoid detection by U.S. authorities, thereby creating a class of U.S. taxpayers now labeled by authorities as “leavers.” In stark contrast, it appears that Prime Partners embarked on a different course of conduct, implementing corrective action to avoid further violations of U.S. law.

The Justice Department appears to have taken great care to describe publicly the extent of Prime Partners’ extensive cooperation, which included the following:

  • Prime Partners’ voluntary production of approximately 175 client files for noncompliant U.S. taxpayers, which included the identities of those U.S. taxpayers;
  • Prime Partners’ willingness to continue to cooperate to the extent permitted by applicable law; and
  • Prime Partners’ representation — based on an investigation by outside counsel, the results of which have been reviewed by the Justice Department — that the misconduct under investigation did not, and does not, extend beyond that described in a statement of facts accompanying the non-prosecution agreement.

Another notable aspect of this case is that while Prime Partners is a Swiss institution, it did not take advantage of the popular yet now-closed “Swiss Bank Program,” which essentially offered amnesty to any Swiss financial institution willing to come forward and make full disclosure of its cross-border activities involving U.S. citizens. Nearly 80 Swiss institutions enrolled in the Swiss Bank Program and successfully resolved their potential exposure under U.S. tax laws by paying steep financial penalties and agreeing to fully cooperate with the U.S. government’s ongoing investigations of offshore tax evasion. Instead of enrolling in the Swiss Bank Program, Prime Partners appears to have conducted an internal investigation, voluntarily disclosed its misconduct to the Justice Department, cooperated with the subsequent government investigation, and attempted to negotiate the best possible deal it could. Prime Partners may have been prompted to undertake such action based upon what the Justice Department has publicly stated is its “willingness to reach fair and appropriate resolutions with entities that come forward in a timely manner, disclose all relevant information regarding their illegal activities and cooperate fully and completely, including naming the individuals engaged in criminal conduct.”

The Justice Department’s announcement that it agreed to a nonprosecution agreement with Prime Partners is no doubt a signal to other financial institutions (both Swiss and non-Swiss) that the voluntary disclosure “window” remains open (notwithstanding the termination of the Swiss Bank Program), and that institutions voluntarily disclosing their wrongdoing and demonstrating substantial cooperation — like that of Prime Partners — will be treated leniently.

Indeed, in a press release announcing the resolution Acting Manhattan U.S. Attorney Joon H. Kim stated that “[t]he resolution of this matter through a non-prosecution agreement, along with forfeiture and restitution, reflects the extraordinary cooperation provided by Prime Partners to our investigation. It should serve as proof that cooperation has tangible benefits.” In the same vein, Acting Deputy Assistant Attorney General Stuart M. Goldberg said that “[i]n our ongoing investigations, we will continue to draw on information from a variety of sources and to provide substantial credit to those around the globe who provide full and timely cooperation regarding the identity of U.S. tax cheats and the phony trusts and shell companies they seek to hide behind.” At the same time, the Justice Department will undoubtedly seek to punish — to the fullest extent possible under U.S. laws — financial institutions that have aided and abetted tax evasion by their U.S. customers and that fail to come forward voluntarily and cooperatively.

Finally, the Justice Department’s resolution with Prime Partners stands as yet another stern warning to taxpayers with undisclosed foreign accounts that they must take corrective action immediately or face harsh consequences. In the press release, Acting Deputy Assistant Attorney General Stuart M. Goldberg said “[t]he message is clear to those using foreign bank accounts to engage in schemes to evade U.S. taxes – you can no longer assume your ‘secret’ accounts will remain concealed, no matter where they are located. In our ongoing investigations, we will continue to draw on information from a variety of sources and to provide substantial credit to those around the globe who provide full and timely cooperation regarding the identity of U.S. tax cheats and the phony trusts and shell companies they seek to hide behind.” The Internal Revenue Service’s Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Program remains available to taxpayers with undisclosed foreign assets, although the penalty for account holders at Prime Partners will now increase from 27.5 percent to 50 percent.

Reprinted with permission from Law360. (c) 2017 Portfolio Media. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. All rights reserved.

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The Justice Department revealed its latest offshore bank resolution by announcing that it had entered into a non-prosecution agreement with a Swiss asset management firm called Prime Partners. This means that Prime Partners will not be criminally prosecuted for participating in what the DOJ characterized as a conspiracy to defraud the Internal Revenue Service and evade federal income taxes in connection with services that it provided to U.S. accountholders between 2001 and 2010. According to a press release announcing the resolution, the non-prosecution agreement was based upon Prime Partners’ “extraordinary cooperation,” including its voluntary production of approximately 175 client files for non-compliant U.S. taxpayer-clients. The non-prosecution agreement further requires Prime Partners to forfeit $4.32 million to the United States, representing certain fees that it earned by assisting its U.S. taxpayer-clients in opening and maintaining these undeclared accounts, and to pay $680,000 in restitution to the IRS, representing the approximate unpaid taxes arising from the tax evasion by Prime Partners’ U.S. taxpayer-clients.

As part of the non-prosecution agreement, Prime Partners admitted that it knew certain U.S. taxpayers were maintaining undeclared foreign bank accounts with the assistance of Prime Partners in order to evade their U.S. tax obligations, in violation of U.S. law. Prime Partners acknowledged that it helped certain U.S. taxpayer-clients conceal from the IRS their beneficial ownership of undeclared assets maintained in foreign bank accounts by using well-known mechanisms employed by offshore banks to hide funds, such as:

  • creating sham entities, which had no business purpose, that served as the nominal account holders for the accounts;
  • advising U.S. taxpayer-clients not to retain their account statements, to call Prime Partners collect from pay phones, and to destroy any faxes they received from Prime Partners;
  • providing U.S. taxpayer-clients with prepaid debit cards, which were funded with money from the clients’ undeclared accounts; and
  • facilitating cash transfers in the United States between U.S. taxpayer-clients with undeclared accounts.

An unusual feature of this latest bank resolution is what the Justice Department characterizes as Prime Partners’ “voluntary and extraordinary cooperation” with the U.S. government. In early 2009, Prime Partners voluntarily implemented a series of remedial measures to stop assisting U.S. taxpayers in evading federal income taxes, before the initiation of any investigation by the U.S. government. The timing of these corrective actions is particularly notable, as the Justice Department announced its landmark deferred prosecution agreement with the largest bank in Switzerland, UBS AG, in February 2009, and the Internal Revenue Service unveiled its Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Program approximately 30 days later. In the midst of the announcement of the UBS resolution, many other Swiss banks were advising their U.S. clients to transfer their account holdings to other, smaller Swiss banks in order to avoid detection by U.S. authorities, thereby creating a class of U.S. taxpayers now characterized by authorities as “leavers.” In stark contrast, it appears that Prime Partners embarked on a different course of conduct, implementing corrective action to avoid further violations of U.S. law.

The Justice Department appears to have taken great care to describe publically the extent of Prime Partners’ extensive cooperation, which included the following:

  • Prime Partners’ voluntary production of approximately 175 client files for non-compliant U.S. taxpayers, which included the identities of those U.S. taxpayers;
  • Prime Partners’ willingness to continue to cooperate to the extent permitted by applicable law; and
  • Prime Partners’ representation – based on an investigation by outside counsel, the results of which have been reviewed by the Justice Department – that the misconduct under investigation did not, and does not, extend beyond that described in a statement of facts accompanying the non-prosecution agreement.

Another notable aspect of this case is that while Prime Partners is a Swiss institution, it did not take advantage of the popular yet now-closed “Swiss Bank Program,” which essentially offered amnesty to any Swiss financial institution willing to come forward and make full disclosure of its cross-border activities involving U.S. citizens. Nearly 80 Swiss institutions enrolled in the Swiss Bank Program and successfully resolved their potential exposure under U.S. tax laws by paying steep financial penalties and agreeing to fully cooperate with the U.S. government’s ongoing investigations of offshore tax evasion. Instead of enrolling in the Swiss Bank Program, Prime Partners appears to have conducted an internal investigation, voluntarily disclosed its misconduct to the Justice Department, cooperated with the subsequent government investigation, and attempted to negotiate the best possible deal it could. Prime Partners may have been prompted to undertake such action based upon what the Justice Department has publicly stated is its “willingness to reach fair and appropriate resolutions with entities that come forward in a timely manner, disclose all relevant information regarding their illegal activities and cooperate fully and completely, including naming the individuals engaged in criminal conduct.”

The Justice Department’s announcement that it agreed to a non-prosecution agreement with Prime Partners is no doubt a signal to other financial institutions that the voluntary disclosure “window” remains open (notwithstanding the termination of the Swiss Bank Program), and that institutions demonstrating substantial cooperation – like that of Prime Partners – will be treated leniently. Indeed, in a press release announcing the resolution Acting Manhattan U.S. Attorney Joon H. Kim stated that “[t]he resolution of this matter through a non-prosecution agreement, along with forfeiture and restitution, reflects the extraordinary cooperation provided by Prime Partners to our investigation. It should serve as proof that cooperation has tangible benefits.” In the same vein, Acting Deputy Assistant Attorney General Stuart M. Goldberg said that “[i]n our ongoing investigations, we will continue to draw on information from a variety of sources and to provide substantial credit to those around the globe who provide full and timely cooperation regarding the identity of U.S. tax cheats and the phony trusts and shell companies they seek to hide behind.” At the same time, the Justice Department will undoubtedly seek to punish – to the fullest extent possible under U.S. laws – financial institutions that have aided and abetted tax evasion by their U.S. customers and that fail to come forward voluntarily and cooperatively.

Finally, the Justice Department’s resolution with Prime Partners stands as yet another stern warning to taxpayers with undisclosed foreign accounts that they must take corrective action immediately or face harsh consequences.  In the press release, Acting Deputy Assistant Attorney General Stuart M. Goldberg said “[t]he message is clear to those using foreign bank accounts to engage in schemes to evade U.S. taxes – you can no longer assume your ‘secret’ accounts will remain concealed, no matter where they are located. In our ongoing investigations, we will continue to draw on information from a variety of sources and to provide substantial credit to those around the globe who provide full and timely cooperation regarding the identity of U.S. tax cheats and the phony trusts and shell companies they seek to hide behind.” The Internal Revenue Service’s Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Program remains available to taxpayers with undisclosed foreign assets, although the penalty for accountholders at Prime Partners will now increase from 27.5 percent to 50 percent.

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In a recent criminal prosecution of a medical doctor/entrepreneur for defrauding his company’s shareholders, the government employed a novel theory of securities fraud premised, in part, upon the defendant’s failure to pay federal employment taxes withheld from his employees’ wages. The government alleged that the defendant, Sreedhar Potarazu, an ophthalmic surgeon licensed in Maryland and Virginia, made repeated false statements to shareholders about the financial condition of VitalSpring Technologies Inc., a company he founded, including concealing the fact that the company failed to pay more than $7.5 million in federal employment taxes. Ensuring that companies are fully compliant with their employment tax obligations is one of the top priorities of the Justice Department and Internal Revenue Service, and this case stands as a rare example of the confluence of the federal securities and employment tax laws.

Potarazu served as the company’s chief executive officer and also served on its board of directors. The government alleged that from at least 2008, Potarazu provided materially false and misleading information to VitalSpring’s shareholders to induce more than $49 million in capital investments in the company. According to the government, Potarazu induced investments from shareholders by making false representations, concealing material facts, and telling deceptive half-truths about VitalSpring’s financial condition, tax compliance, and alleged imminent sale. Potarazu represented on numerous occasions that VitalSpring was a financially successful company and that a sale of VitalSpring was imminent, which would have resulted in profits for shareholders. Potarazu concealed from shareholders that VitalSpring failed to account for and pay over more than $7.5 million in employment taxes to the IRS. Potarazu provided false corporate income tax returns to some shareholders that overstated VitalSpring’s income and omitted the accruing employment tax liability. From 2011 to 2015, in addition to his salary paid by VitalSpring, Potarazu diverted at least $5 million from the investors and VitalSpring for his own personal use.

Between 2007 and 2016, VitalSpring accrued federal employment tax liabilities of more than $7.5 million. The company withheld taxes from VitalSpring employees’ wages, but failed to fully pay over the amounts withheld to the IRS. As chief executive officer, Potarazu was a “responsible person” obligated to collect, truthfully account for, and pay over VitalSpring’s employment taxes. According to the government, ultimate and final decision-making authority regarding VitalSpring’s business activities rested with Potarazu. Potarazu was aware of the employment tax liability as early as 2007 and between 2007 and 2016, was frequently apprised of VitalSpring’s employment tax responsibilities by his employees. In addition, IRS special agents interviewed Potarazu in 2011 and informed him of the employment tax liability. In all but one quarter between the first quarter of 2007 and the last quarter of 2011, as well as the second and third quarters of 2015, Potarazu failed to file VitalSpring’s Employer’s Quarterly Federal Tax Return (Forms 941) with the IRS. Potarazu also failed to pay over any of the employment tax withheld from VitalSpring’s employees’ wages in all but one quarter between the second quarter of 2007 and the third quarter of 2011, as well as the third and fourth quarters of 2015. Between 2008 and 2015, instead of paying over employment tax, Potarazu caused VitalSpring to make millions of dollars of expenditures, including thousands of dollars in transfers to himself and others, the publication of his book, a sedan car service, and travel.

Potarazu eventually pleaded guilty to one count of securities fraud and one count of failing to account for and pay over federal employment taxes. In his guilty plea, Potarazu acknowledged that he provided materially false and misleading information to his company’s shareholders to induce further capital investments, including concealing the fact that the company had accrued a multi-million dollar tax liability as a result of unpaid employment taxes. On July 19, Potarazu was sentenced to nearly ten years in prison, and ordered to pay $49.5 million in restitution to shareholders and $7.6 million to the Internal Revenue Service. He was also ordered to forfeit several homes, vehicles, and bank accounts.

Aggressive criminal and civil enforcement of the federal employment tax laws has been a top priority of both the Justice Department and the IRS for the past several years. Amounts withheld from employee wages represent nearly 70% of all revenue collected by the IRS. According to a recent report from the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA), as of December 2015, 1.4 million employers owed approximately $45.6 billion in unpaid employment taxes, interest, and penalties. The Justice Department’s Tax Division reports that as of June 30, 2016, more than $59.4 billion of taxes reported on quarterly federal employment tax returns remained unpaid. Employment tax violations represent more than $91 billion of the “Tax Gap,” which measures the difference between the total amount of tax owed to the U.S. Treasury and the amount actually paid. During fiscal year 2016, employment tax investigations were one of the few categories of tax crimes for which IRS-Criminal Investigation initiated more investigations than in the prior fiscal year.

Employment tax schemes can take a variety of forms. Some of the more common schemes include employee leasing, paying employees in cash, filing false employment tax returns, failing to file employment tax returns, and “pyramiding.” Pyramiding refers to the practice of withholding taxes from employee wages, but failing to remit such taxes to the IRS. After the employment tax liability accrues, the business owner starts a new business and begins to accrue employment tax liabilities anew.

In securities fraud cases, the government often charges that a company’s books and records are manipulated in order to falsely inflate revenue and earnings. For example, in United States v. Hyunjin Lerner (S.D. Fla. Mar. 29, 2017), the indictment alleged that the defendant and his co-conspirators engaged in a complex accounting fraud, utilizing unsupported expense accruals, improper accounting entries, misclassification of expense items, and false revenue items, in order to boost the company’s revenue and earnings. Similarly, in United States v. Joseph A. Kostelecky (N. Dakota Jan. 6, 2017), the defendant was charged with securities fraud in connection with an alleged scheme to artificially inflate his company’s revenue based upon the booking of revenue from oil and gas contracts, where such contracts did not exist or the revenue from such contracts was not collectible. In United States v. Brian Block (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 8, 2016), the indictment charged the chief financial officer of a publicly-traded real estate investment trust with securities fraud in connection with his alleged fraudulent inflation of a key metric used to evaluate a REIT’s financial performance in filings made with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

In securities fraud cases alleging materially false and misleading statements, it is rare for such statements to involve a company’s general tax compliance. Even more rare are cases involving false statements about a company’s employment tax compliance.  Indeed, the Potarazu case may be the first securities fraud case to allege that shareholders and investors were misled about a company’s employment tax compliance. With the intense focus now being paid to employment tax enforcement by the Justice Department and Internal Revenue Service, we may well see more cases, like Potarazu, where securities fraud schemes and employment tax fraud schemes are intertwined.

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