Articles Posted in IRS Whistleblower Program (for Tax Whistleblowers)

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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With the current debate over raising tax rates becoming increasingly heated, a bipartisan, common-sense effort to recover more of the several hundred billion dollars that tax cheats already owe deserves far greater emphasis.

The IRS in September sent a smart and principled message that it is willing to encourage those with the best information about massive tax evasion to come forward. The IRS agreed that the billions in taxpayer funds it has begun to recover based on information from UBS whistleblower Bradley Biirkenfeld should warrant the first $100 million tax whistleblower award ever announced.
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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.

The University of Miami’s Heckerling Institute last week brought together the nation’s leading estate planners, including attorneys, trust officers, accountants, insurance advisors, and wealth management professionals. For the first time, these estate planning professionals delved into how estate and gift tax issues are the subjects of many IRS Whistleblower claims.

This program was organized by Marty Basson, who recently retired from the IRS Whistleblower Office and hung out his shingle (now providing a wealth of knowledge to the private bar), after a distinguished career as the IRS authority on estate and gift tax issues.

Marty has long served on the Heckerling Institute faculty at the University of Miami. Marty is also a charter member of the IRS Estate and Gift Tax National Advisory Panel, a select group of IRS attorneys who assist in forming nationwide policy decisions in the estate and gift tax area.

Marty asked me to join him and Dawn Applebaum of the IRS Whistleblower Office for a Heckerling panel discussion last week on the IRS Whistleblower Program in the estate and gift tax arena. While a few professionals in attendance had already filed IRS Whistleblower claims, the vast majority had not.

Heckerling provided a first class forum to address many of the “hot” issues in the tax whistleblower program. I was honored to join Marty and Dawn as the private whistleblower attorney who provided the perspective of whistleblowers in the IRS Whistleblower Program.

Once Congress created the new IRS Whistleblower Program in December 2006, the IRS Whistleblower Office was unsure whether it would receive many estate tax and gift tax claims. It received far more estate and gift tax claims than anticipated.

Consider a typical case of a divorced couple who both know that a parent has hidden accounts offshore. When that parent dies, the estranged spouse knows that the offshore accounts will not likely appear on the estate tax return. Such information about tax evasion is very useful to the Service, so that honest taxpayers do not bear more than our fair share of the burden.

Our Heckerling discussion covered many, many aspects of the IRS Whistleblower Program in a spirited discussion that ran out of time. Marty was suddenly free to express his own observations, not simply the official position of the IRS.

Among the topics were recent Tax Court opinions on protecting the confidentiality of whistleblowers and of taxpayer information in appeals, and the protections of taxpayer information in proposed new Tax Court Rule 345.

I was asked to discuss steps to protect whistleblowers from criminal and civil liability, which has been an important issue in past presentations after UBS whistleblower Bradley Birkenfeld found himself prosecuted for a federal offense. Marty also asked me to discuss the view of numerous tax whistleblowers as their claims progress through the process.
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At the Healthcare Fraud Institute this past week, I was asked to address what steps whistleblowers should take to ensure confidentiality of emails with their lawyers. Although qui tam cases under the False Claims Act were the focus of our discussion, the same principles apply to tax whistleblowers and SEC whistleblowers.

Potential whistleblowers should never use their company’s email system, or any email account shared with or accessible to another person, for communicating with their attorney or for gathering information or evidence to report to the government.

Although the law encourages whistleblowers to report fraud, whistleblowers can create unnecessary problems for themselves by not following this rule.

First, emails between whistleblowers and their attorneys are privileged and confidential, but the privilege can disappear and be waived if the communication is disclosed to others.

Second, qui tam whistleblower cases under the False Claims Act are filed with a court order “sealing” the case from public view, while the government investigates. If an email accidentally exposes the case, the whistleblower may have violated the court’s “seal” order.

Third, alerting a defendant company that the whistleblower has reported the company’s fraud to the government is almost certain to provoke retaliation against an employee who is a whistleblower. Immediate suspension or firing often follows. Although the False Claims Act and the SEC and CFTC whistleblower laws create remedies for retaliation, those remedies take time to achieve. They will not pay the whistleblower’s mortgage next month–or this year.

We advise all of our clients that they must protect the confidentiality of their emails. Many people do not realize that emails sent from a company’s computer system usually leave some record, even if the employee is accessing a personal Gmail account.
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At this past week’s third annual “IRS Whistleblower Boot Camp,” Deputy IRS Commissioner for Service and Enforcement Steven T. Miller spoke of his “desire for the whistleblower program to grow.” A major announcement was that he would “push for” the IRS to begin using the expertise of whistleblowers who can help the IRS interpret information obtained in its audits..

In his remarks, Deputy Commissioner Miller described “offshore” tax abuses as a key area. He commented that whistleblower submissions have a “unique place” in “breaking bank secrecy.”

With budget reductions, the IRS is looking for ways to “leverage” its efforts. According to Miller, whistleblower submissions in at least three areas can help:

1. Promotion of abusive tax shelters known to potential whistleblowers
2. Tax violations in which sophisticated information technology systems pose a barrier to the IRS, unless a whistleblower can explain them
3. Inadequate information reporting that is required of third parties, and that whistleblowers can address
When it “makes sense” for the IRS to use the whistleblower’s expertise, Miller said he would encourage use of disclosure agreements with whistleblowers authorized under section 6103(n) of the Internal Revenue Code, which governs disclosure of taxpayer information. Examples he gave include review of information received in response to the Service’s information document requests, or explanation of information technology issues known to the whistleblower.

Sen. Chuck Grassley recently urged the IRS to make better use of expertise and resources that whistleblowers and their lawyers can provide, as the Justice Department does in False Claims Act cases.

This year’s IRS Whistleblower Boot Camp also included many other senior IRS officials. Whistleblower Office Director Steve Whitlock and his office’s Special Counsel Debra Bowe were major participants.

Once again, the Office of Chief Counsel’s Senior Counsel Tom Kane participated and was again very generous with his time, both during and after the program. He addressed various litigation issues that arise in whistleblower matters. Senior Program Analysts Dawn Applebaum and Kathy Onken also provided a great deal of knowledge and insight into how the program is operating.

The most fascinating issues to me were those involving the international and offshore efforts of the IRS, the subject of the session I moderated. On this panel, joining IRS Whistleblower Office director Steve Whitlock and Senior Analyst Dawn Applebaum were Toni Weirauch, Deputy Director of International Crimes in the IRS Criminal Investigation Division; and Donna Prestia of the new Global High Wealth Division. The attendees gained an appreciation of the considerations of representing whistleblowers who may be foreign nationals gathering evidence in ways that comport with U.S. law, but that may be contrary to other countries’ bank secrecy laws.

My colleagues Erika Kelton, Paul Scott, Linda Stengle, and Margaret (Peggy) Finnerty deserve thanks for their excellent presentations as well.
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Each year’s “IRS Whistleblower Boot Camp” brings together senior officials of the IRS Whistleblower Office and tax whistleblower attorneys to explore the latest developments in the IRS Whistleblower Program. This year’s Boot Camp is November 15, 2011 in Washington.

Of special interest this year is that Deputy IRS Commissioner for Services and Enforcement Steven T. Miller will participate for the first time. Other IRS officials participating include (in order of appearance):

Stephen Whitlock, Director of the IRS Whistleblower Office

The promising new IRS Whistleblower Program that Congress authorized in December 2006 is the subject of a long-anticipated GAO Report released this morning.

Disappointingly, the report raised, but did not attempt to answer, fundamental questions that will determine whether the IRS realizes the full potential of the new program in helping close the “tax gap”–or settles for a fraction of what it can accomplish.

Inspired by the dramatic successes of the False Claims Act in combating fraud against the government through rewarding whistleblowers, Sen. Charles Grassley spearheaded the effort to create the first meaningful IRS Whistleblower Program in 2006.

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