Articles Posted in IRS Whistleblower Program (for Tax Whistleblowers)

FATCA is being implemented in a number of countries outside the U.S., with the result that U.S. individuals who hold foreign bank or financial accounts and have not disclosed these accounts in the U.S., are about to be reported to the IRS.

(This post is by our colleague Richard Rubin of Rubin Law (www.rubinlaw.us), a tax attorney with significant experience in U.S. cross-border matters, including FATCA and U.S. international compliance.)

Bank accounts in countries outside the U.S. can cause headaches when owned by U.S. taxpayers. While owning foreign accounts has always entailed a reporting headache for U.S. taxpayers, the problem has recently heightened as a result of the FATCA legislation that is being implemented in a number of countries outside the U.S.

FATCA is a set of U.S. tax reporting rules that impact U.S. citizens, Green Card holders and other U.S. tax resident individuals who have accounts with non-U.S. banks or financial institutions.

An acronym for the Foreign Account Transactions Compliance Act, FATCA requires banks and financial institutions in countries outside the U.S.to provide the IRS with details of accounts that are owned by U.S. taxpayers. Although the mechanism varies slightly by country, in most countries where FATCA has been implemented banks and financial institutions are required to report these details to the Revenue Authority of that country, and the Revenue Authority is required to pass this information along to the IRS.
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The just-released FY 2013 IRS Whistleblower Office Annual Report reveals clues to what the future holds for tax whistleblowers.

Steve Whitlock, Director of the IRS Whistleblower Office, gave a preview last Fall. Listening to an audience react enthusiastically to his SEC counterpart Sean McKessy discuss awarding more than $14 million to a whistleblower, Whitlock wryly observed that the IRS had “only” awarded $50 million to whistleblowers in FY 2013.

To those who follow the IRS Whistleblower Program closely, Whitlock’s comment was a rare moment to take a bow of sorts. It was a brutal year in which Whitlock’s boss, Acting Commissioner Steve Miller, lost his job as the IRS faced attacks that it had politicized reviews of organizations claiming tax-exempt status. Although the Whistleblower Office played no role in that controversy, Sen. Grassley and others also scorned the IRS and Treasury for obstructing Congress’ mandate to establish a robust whistleblower program.

Another shoe dropped for offshore tax evaders today, in an encouraging sign for the IRS Whistleblower Office.

A Liechtenstein bank avoided prosecution by agreeing to turn over files on 200 U.S. customers and to pay $23.8 million for assisting U.S. taxpayers in opening and maintaining undeclared bank accounts from 2001 through 2011.

Liechtensteinische Landesbank AG (LLB-Vaduz) helped a significant number of U.S. taxpayers hide these offshore accounts, evade U.S. taxes, and file false tax returns with the IRS, according to today’s announcement.

When New York amended its state False Claims Act in 2010, it broke new ground by including tax whistleblower cases. New York’s decision to attract tax whistleblowers bore fruit when the NY Supreme Court recently ruled that New York’s $100 million tax whistleblower case against Sprint-Nextel Corp. may proceed.

If successful, this case may net New York three times the more than $100 million in unpaid taxes that the state alleges Sprint has failed to pay its state and local governments. It may also bring the whistleblower 15%-25% of what the state recovers.

The N.Y. Supreme Court first rejected Sprint’s arguments that the N.Y. Tax Law did not require payment of the sales tax in question. The Court allowed the case to proceed.

Sprint was successful in limiting the time in question to March 31, 2008 forward, but now faces discovery and a potential trial over allegations that include whether Sprint knowingly made “false records or statements” and repeatedly engaged in “fraudulent or illegal activity.”
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Now is the time to tell the story of Bob Gardner. Bob retires this week after 37 years of service with the IRS, most recently with the IRS Whistleblower Office.

Bob understands that public service is a noble calling for so many in our government. He epitomizes all that is good in fairly administering our internal revenue laws.

When IRS Whistleblower Office Director Steve Whitlock began hiring for the first “tax whistleblower” office that Congress had authorized in late 2006, Bob Gardner was one of his most important finds. Bob has a wealth of knowledge and perspective on tax issues, built through broad experience as an IRS revenue agent, and then in positions in what is now the IRS Large Business and International Division.

Could the IRS and Treasury Department have done a worse job in how they have handled the alleged “targeting” of conservative groups that applied for tax-exempt status before the 2012 elections?

My criticism starts–but does not end–with any IRS personnel who singled out “Tea Party” and similar groups for extra scrutiny based on their political affiliations. Any such acts cannot be tolerated..

But less noticed is what was being done–or not done–since at least mid-2012 by the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (“TIGTA”).

The Senate Finance Committee’s official “timeline” states that, in May 2012, “TIGTA briefs [IRS] Commissioner Shulman on the targeting by the IRS of tea party applications for 501(c)(4) status.”

So the Inspector General’s Office knew, at least six months before the 2012 elections, that “targeting” of these applicants had occurred? If TIGTA told Commissioner Shulman that it was auditing the problem, why did it take TIGTA another year to issue its May 2013 report?

And did Commissioner Shulman, a Bush appointee with no reason to “hide” any “targeting” of conservative groups, rely on the Inspector General’s staff to gather evidence and take appropriate action? Shouldn’t TIGTA have acted expeditiously? TIGTA’s other FY 2013 reports reveal nothing so pressing that it should have taken it another year.to complete its work.
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This week in a rare occurrence, the heads of the IRS and SEC Whistleblower programs and federal and state False Clams Act officials participated in one conference to discuss prosecuting and defending whistleblower cases.

Our firm has organized this “Whistleblower Law Symposium” since 2007 to explore developments in the growing number of federal and state whistleblower laws that seek to stop fraud against taxpayer funds.

“Sequestration” threatened to keep some major speakers from participating because of travel restrictions. The solution was “beaming in” Sean McKessey, Director of the SEC’s Office of the Whistleblower, and Steve Whitlock, Director of the IRS Whistleblower Office, to join our panelists by videoconference.

The conference began with an overview I provided of the country’s major whistleblower law, the False Claims Act. Its successes since 1986 inspired Congress to create both the new IRS Whistleblower Program in 2006, and the new SEC Whistleblower Program in the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act.

An excellent discussion of the False Claims Act in health care followed, led by Rick Shackelford of King & Spalding, LLP. Rick was joined by my former partner John E. Floyd of Bondurant, Mixson & Elmore, LLP; Daniel P. Griffin of Miller & Martin, PLLC; and Marlon Wilbanks of Wilbanks & Bridges, LLP.

Another panel then analyzed Georgia’s New 2012 “Taxpayer Protection False Claims Act, a 2012 state False Claims Act that I helped draft. This law encompasses all spending by state, county, municipal, and other local governments in Georgia. Nels Peterson, who as Georgia’s Solicitor General is charged with overseeing the implementation of the new statute, explained the framework of the law.

Because the new state FCA applies to fraud against local governments as well, we also heard how the Act might be used by cities and counties. Mary Carole Cooney, former Atlanta Deputy City Attorney, and Bill Linkous, former Dekalb County Attorney, provided their perspectives on how the new whistleblower law might expose fraud in various areas of local government spending.

SEC Whistleblower Chief Sean McKessey then joined us electronically to discuss the most pressing issues in bringing (and defending) SEC Whistleblower claims.
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Today marks the end of IRS Commissioner Doug Shulman’s tenure, just as President Obama and Congressional leaders shift to addressing the looming “fiscal cliff.” Rather than disrupt the process of narrowing the deficit, Shulman’s departure could actually assist it–in an important way that does not depend on raising tax rates.

The timing is perfect for a new IRS leader to back fully a bipartisan effort long advocated by Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) to tackle the “tax gap”–the more than $300 billion owed but not paid by tax cheats each year. Grassley seeks to expand the IRS Whistleblower Program to fulfill the promise of changes to the tax whistleblower law that Grassley sponsored almost six years ago.

Grassley should enlist as a ready ally President Obama, whose Justice Department is about to announce a record year of fraud recoveries in False Claims Act cases brought by whistleblowers. Grassley also has been the driving force behind that highly successful law since at least 1986.

Although the IRS has assembled highly skilled professionals to staff its Whistleblower Office led by Director Steve Whitlock, Grassley’s efforts have been stymied by bureaucratic resistance among others in the IRS. Those naysayers create endless obstacles to attracting whistleblowers–even though the Treasury Inspector General has determined that whistleblower information is essentially twice as effective as other sources for uncovering tax violations.

The Justice Department has learned over the past quarter century that working closely with “insider” whistleblowers and their counsel is the key to unravelling significant fraud schemes. In contrast, too many in the IRS refuse to learn from the DOJ’s experience and to heed Congress’ directive to expand the use of whistleblowers. For example, after convincing Grassley’s staff in 2006 that they could and would work closely with whistleblowers, the IRS Chief Counsel’s Office over almost six years has refused to approve even a single agreement with a whistleblower to allow that cooperation.
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In presenting programs on how to protect whistleblowers from criminal and civil liability, we have watched in amazement as UBS whistleblower Bradley Birkenfeld got himself incarcerated for a felony conviction–despite apparently being one of the most valuable IRS whistleblowers ever.

Today’s announcement of Birkenfeld’s release after serving almost 30 months of a 40 month prison sentence–reportedly based on “good time” credits accrued, not some change of heart by the Justice Department lawyers who prosecuted him–comes amidst blistering criticism by Sen. Chuck Grassley of impediments that some IRS officials have created to the functioning of the IRS Whistleblower program. Grassley was so frustrated that he refused to allow nominations of two persons for Assistant Secretary of the Treasury positions to proceed until July 30, after his arm-twisting for information about the tax whistleblower program had made some headway.

Now that Birkenfeld has been released, attention will shift to his claim to receive what he contends is his lawful percentage of the huge sums that the IRS is reaping based on his disclosures about UBS and US taxpayers. Based on my discussions with IRS criminal agents, they will howl if Birkenfeld receives any reward of significance.

Some believe that Birkenfeld’s “holding back” cost the IRS dearly in its investigation of a former Birkenfeld/UBS client. They will argue, “Why reward a convicted felon?”

On the opposite extreme, some persons who advocate for whistleblowers have loudly condemned the entire prosecution of Birkenfeld. Those arguments have struck me as short-sighted. They ignore the principle that there is a rule of law that must apply to all of us, including whistleblowers.

Based on our review of available Birkenfeld court filings and transcripts, he apparently violated the cardinal rule that a whistleblower cannot “hold back” information about his own alleged misdeeds in his “cooperation” with the government. This is not a novel theory, but a long-settled principle.

To obtain a “pass” for one’s own felonious conduct, one must tell it all. (Read Birkenfeld’s sentencing transcript to see how he failed to dispute then the essential facts relied on by the government). Rather than frighten potential whistleblowers, whistleblower attorneys should encourage them to learn the facts by pointing out Birkenfeld’s apparent errors–and show how easily those errors can usually be avoided.

Except for those who have a financial interest in representing Birkenfeld, I do not see how whistleblower advocates would fail to appreciate how failing to prosecute Birkenfeld under these circumstances would have been even more damaging to the cause of whistleblowers generally.

Given that he apparently flouted this cardinal rule and thus allegedly misled prosecutors, his serious misconduct cannot be ignored. Opponents of compensating whistleblowers for revealing fraud would use an unchastened and unprosecuted Birkenfeld as “red meat” to try to undermine–if not repeal–the IRS whistleblower law.
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In a controversial decision today, the IRS squandered an opportunity to help close the tax gap by attracting more whistleblowers with significant information about large tax schemes. The public will suffer as a result.

Stubbornly, the IRS rejected calls for a common sense approach to rewarding tax whistleblowers, as it refused to modify a proposed rule that narrowly defines the categories of cases that should justify awards to whistleblowers.

At issue is what Congress meant by the term “collected proceeds”–an undefined phrase in the 2006 tax whistleblower law. This law unquestionably sought to expand the number and variety of whistleblower claims presented to the IRS.

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