U.S. Department of Justice (USDOJ)

Last month we wrote about the Justice Department’s new corporate resolution policy, which is intended to curb the practice of multiple government authorities imposing separate punishments on a corporate defendant for the same underlying conduct. Employing a football metaphor, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein explained that the intent of the new policy was to prevent “piling on,” which he described as “a player jumping on a pile of other players after the opponent is already tackled.” In the wake of this policy change, we have been carefully following Justice Department announcements of corporate investigations to see how this policy will work in practice.

The Justice Department recently announced resolution of a Foreign Corrupt Practices Act investigation involving a Hong Kong subsidiary of Swiss bank Credit Suisse. The allegations involved the awarding of employment to friends and family of Chinese officials in exchange for banking business. As part of the resolution, the Credit Suisse subsidiary entered into a non-prosecution agreement and agreed to pay a criminal penalty of $47 million. The SEC simultaneously announced that Credit Suisse entered into a settlement agreement covering the same underlying conduct and agreed to pay disgorgement of nearly $25 million with nearly $5 million of prejudgment interest. In an apparent nod to the anti-“piling on” policy, the SEC agreed to refrain from imposing any civil penalty. In fact, the SEC administrative order expressly provides that “[Credit Suisse] acknowledges that the Commission is not imposing a civil penalty based upon the imposition of a $47 million criminal fine as part of Credit Suisse’s settlement with the United States Department of Justice.”

When Rosenstein unveiled this new policy last month, he cited two examples of recent corporate resolutions that he said were consistent with the new anti-“piling on” approach. One of those resolutions, announced in April 2018, is very similar to the Credit Suisse resolution announced last week. In that case, the Justice Department entered into a deferred prosecution agreement in an FCPA investigation of the subsidiary of a global electronics company. The company paid a criminal penalty of $137 million. In a related proceeding, the SEC filed a cease-and-desist order against the company, which required the payment of $143 million in disgorgement for the same conduct. Rosenstein noted that the SEC agreed to forgo the imposition of penalties given the company’s agreement to pay a criminal penalty to the Justice Department.

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By Charles A. De Monaco, Matthew D. Lee and Jana Volante Walshak

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein unveiled a new Justice Department policy for resolving major corporate investigations last month at a speech to the New York City Bar White Collar Crime Institute.

The new policy encourages coordination among Justice Department components and other enforcement agencies in order to curb the practice of multiple government authorities imposing separate punishments on a corporate defendant for the same underlying conduct. Employing a football metaphor, Rosenstein said this new policy is meant to prevent “piling on,” which he described as “a player jumping on a pile of other players after the opponent is already tackled.”[1]

The goal of the policy is to enhance relationships with the Justice Department’s law enforcement partners in the United States and abroad, while avoiding what Rosenstein termed “unfair duplicative penalties.” And the Justice Department appears to have wasted little time in putting this policy into action, with the first such corporation resolutions of the new anti-“piling on” era announced this week, involving charges of foreign bribery and manipulation of the LIBOR interest rate.

Prior Instances of ‘Piling On’

Several corporate resolutions announced by the Justice Department over the last several years involved multiple penalties for the same underlying conduct which could be characterized as “piling on.” In 2012, international bank HSBC agreed to forfeit over $1.2 billion and enter into a deferred prosecution agreement with the Justice Department for violations of the Bank Secrecy Act, the International Emergency Economic Powers Act and the Trading with the Enemy Act.[2] In addition to the $1.2 billion forfeiture, HSBC agreed to pay $665 million in civil penalties for the same conduct to be apportioned among numerous other government agencies, including the Comptroller of the Currency, the Federal Reserve and the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network and Office of Foreign Assets Control.

In 2015, five global financial institutions pled guilty to charges that they conspired to manipulate currency prices in the foreign exchange market.[3] These banks paid a total of nearly $9 billion in fines to a long list of U.S. and foreign government agencies, including the Justice Department; the Federal Reserve; the Comptroller of the Currency; the New York State Department of Financial Services; the Commodity Futures Trading Commission; the United Kingdom’s Financial Conduct Authority; and the Swiss Financial Market Supervisory Authority.

The Justice Department’s New Corporate Resolution Policy

The Justice Department’s new anti-“piling on” policy has four key features. First, it reaffirms that the federal government’s criminal enforcement authority should not be used against a company for purposes unrelated to the investigation and prosecution of a possible crime. In particular, the Justice Department may not employ the threat of criminal prosecution solely to persuade a company to pay a larger settlement in a civil case.

Second, the policy addresses situations in which Justice Department attorneys in different components and offices may be seeking to resolve a corporate investigation based on the same misconduct. The new policy directs Department of Justice components to coordinate with one another, in order to achieve an overall equitable result. The coordination may include crediting and apportionment of financial penalties, fines and forfeitures, as well as other means of avoiding disproportionate punishment.

Third, the policy encourages Justice Department attorneys, when possible, to coordinate with other federal, state, local and foreign enforcement authorities seeking to resolve a case with a company for the same misconduct.

Finally, the new policy sets forth some factors that Department attorneys may evaluate in determining whether multiple penalties serve the interests of justice in a particular case. Factors identified in the policy that may guide this determination include the egregiousness of the wrongdoing; statutory mandates regarding penalties; the risk of delay in finalizing a resolution; and the adequacy and timeliness of a company’s disclosures and cooperation with the Justice Department. Rosenstein cautioned that under the new policy, the Justice Department may still seek penalties that may appear to be duplicative but are “essential to achieve justice and protect the public.” He also warned that a company’s cooperation with a different government agency or a foreign government is no substitute for cooperating with the Justice Department, and that his agency “will not look kindly on companies that come to the Department of Justice only after making inadequate disclosures to secure lenient penalties with other agencies or foreign governments.”

Rosenstein acknowledged that the new policy’s directive of cooperation is not a new idea. Certain Justice Department components and many U.S. Attorney’s Offices already coordinate with other federal agencies, including the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Commodities Futures Trading Commission, the Federal Reserve as well as authorities in other countries. For example, just a few months ago, the Justice Department’s Foreign Corrupt Practices Act unit announced a coordinated resolution with Brazil and Singapore.[4] The Justice Department’s Antitrust Division routinely cooperates with numerous foreign agencies in merger investigations, and its National Security Division works with the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control in investigations of sanctions and export control violations.

Rosenstein also reiterated that the Justice Department will continue to seek to identify and hold accountable culpable individuals in corporate investigations, a policy memorialized several years ago in the so-called “Yates Memorandum.” That policy document proclaimed that “[o]ne of the most effective ways to combat corporate misconduct is by seeking accountability from the individuals who perpetrated the wrongdoing.” Rosenstein explained that in corporate investigations, the primary question remains: “Who made the decision to set the company on a course of criminal conduct?”

Rosenstein also announced the creation of a “Working Group on Corporate Enforcement and Accountability” within the Justice Department. Designed to promote consistency in the Department’s white collar efforts, the Working Group includes Justice Department leadership and senior officials from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Criminal Division, the Civil Division, other litigating divisions involved in significant corporate investigations and the U.S. Attorney’s Offices. The Working Group will make internal recommendations about white collar crime, corporate compliance, and related issues.

Recent Examples

In a more recent speech, Rosenstein cited two recent examples of corporate resolutions that are consistent with the Justice Department’s new anti-“piling on” directive.[5]

First, in February 2018, the Justice Department announced that a U.S. subsidiary of an international bank pled guilty to obstructing its primary federal regulator by concealing deficiencies in its anti-money laundering program.[6] There, the bank agreed to forfeit nearly $370 million, and the Justice Department agreed that $50 million of that obligation was satisfied by the payment of civil penalties to the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency in a separate administrative action.

Next, in April 2018, the Justice Department and FBI announced a deferred prosecution agreement in an FCPA investigation of the subsidiary of a global electronics company.[7] In that case, the company paid a criminal penalty of $137 million. In a related proceeding, the SEC filed a cease-and-desist order against the company, which required the payment of $143 million in disgorgement for the same conduct. Rosenstein noted that the SEC agreed to forgo the imposition of penalties given the company’s agreement to pay a criminal penalty to the Justice Department.

And in early June, the Justice Department announced the first corporate resolutions since issuance of its new corporate resolution policy. First, a global bank headquartered in Paris and a wholly owned subsidiary agreed to pay more than $860 million to resolve charges in the United States and France involving bribery in Libya and manipulation of the LIBOR interest rate.[8] The financial institution also agreed to pay $475 million in regulatory penalties and disgorgement to the Commodity Futures Trading Commission in connection with the LIBOR scheme, and $293 million to French authorities in connection with the Libyan bribery scheme. In an apparent nod to the new policy discouraging “piling on,” the United States agreed to credit the $293 million French payment against the total U.S. criminal penalty for the bribery charges.

In a related case announced the same day, a U.S. investment management firm entered into a non-prosecution agreement and agreed to pay $64 million in criminal penalties and disgorgement to settle FCPA charges relating to bribery in Libya.[9] The $64 million payment includes approximately $33 million to be paid to the United States Treasury and disgorgement of approximately $32 million, which will be credited against disgorgement paid to other law enforcement agencies within the first year of the agreement.

Conclusion

While the Justice Department’s new corporate resolution policy appears to be a step in the right direction, it remains to be seen how well the Department will be able to coordinate resolutions with other enforcement agencies, particularly those at the state level as well as foreign counterparts. For example, there may well be instances in which other interested law enforcement agencies – such as state attorneys general – may be unwilling to accept a reduced, or coordinated, punishment from a corporate wrongdoer. Without written policies to prevent “piling on” by coordinate law enforcement agencies, the Justice Department may be unable to prevent imposition of “unfair duplicative penalties.”


[1] U.S. Department of Justice Press Release, “Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein Delivers Remarks to the New York City Bar White Collar Crime Institute” (May 9, 2018).

[2] U.S. Department of Justice Press Release, “HSBC Holdings Plc. and HSBC Bank USA N.A. Admit to Anti-Money Laundering and Sanctions Violations, Forfeit $1.256 Billion in Deferred Prosecution Agreement” (Dec. 11, 2012).

[3] U.S. Department of Justice Press Release, “Five Major Banks Agree to Parent-Level Guilty Pleas” (May 20, 2015).

[4] U.S. Department of Justice Press Release, “Keppel Offshore & Marine Ltd. and U.S. Based Subsidiary Agree to Pay $422 Million in Global Penalties to Resolve Foreign Bribery Case” (Dec. 22, 2017).

[5] U.S. Department of Justice Press Release, “Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein Delivers Remarks at the Bloomberg Law Leadership Forum” (May 23, 2018).

[6] U.S. Department of Justice Press Release, “Rabobank NA Pleads Guilty, Agrees to Pay Over $360 Million” (Feb. 7, 2018).

[7] U.S. Department of Justice Press Release, “Panasonic Avionics Corporation Agrees to Pay $137 Million to Resolve Foreign Corrupt Practices Act Charges” (Apr. 30, 2018).

[8] U.S. Department of Justice Press Release, “Société Générale S.A. Agrees to Pay $860 Million in Criminal Penalties for Bribing Gaddafi-Era Libyan Officials and Manipulating LIBOR Rate” (June 4, 2018).

[9] U.S. Department of Justice Press Release, “Legg Mason Inc. Agrees to Pay $64 Million in Criminal Penalties and Disgorgement to Resolve FCPA Charges Related to Bribery of Gaddafi-Era Libyan Officials” (June 4, 2018).

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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Our colleague Ryan Becker reports that the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act is alive and well and remains a top enforcement priority for the new administration.  In an article published today, Ryan writes that since 2016, the Justice Department’s Fraud Section has resolved 17 criminal corporate matters under the FCPA, obtaining more than $1.6 billion in penalties and forfeited profits.  Last week, Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein reaffirmed DOJ’s commitment to FCPA enforcement while announcing a revised corporate enforcement policy aimed at incentivizing corporations to self-report violations and fully cooperate in exchange for a declination of prosecution.  The new policy largely formalizes principles previously announced in April 2016 as part of the DOJ’s “Pilot Program” on FCPA enforcement. Rosenstein credited the positive results of the Pilot Program with a significant increase in voluntary disclosures over the prior 18-month period. As a result, DOJ has adopted the new enforcement guidelines, which will be incorporated into the U.S. Attorneys’ Manual.  You can read Ryan’s article here.

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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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