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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Each Fall, the Justice Department tallies its recoveries of taxpayer dollars that have been pilfered through fraud directed at federal programs. A year ago, DOJ proudly announced $3 billion in recoveries in False Claims Act cases, and a record $8.7 billion recovered in the three years starting in 2009.

Late this year, DOJ will announce that its fraud recoveries tripled from $3 million in FY 2011 to more than $9 million in FY 2012. This trend of increasingly large recoveries of stolen taxpayer funds proves once again the effectiveness of laws like the False Claims Act, which incentivize whistleblowers to expose fraud through its qui tam provisions.

Although health care cases account for the vast majority of FCA recoveries, growing areas include banking, mortgage, and pension fraud cases involving fraudulently obtained taxpayer dollars, as my colleagues at Taxpayers Against Fraud point out. States are also using their own false claims laws to recover stolen taxpayer funds.

In qui tam cases, private citizen whistleblowers (known as “relators”) file suit on the government’s behalf to expose fraud against taxpayer funds. The whistleblowers can receive 15-25% of the government’s recovery of stolen funds if the government prosecutes the case, and 25-30% if the government leaves it to the whistleblower to pursue the recovery.

Consider the history of False Claims Act recoveries that have totalled more than $39 billion since 1986, when Congress authorized meaningful rewards to whistleblowers:
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Recently, I was asked to explain the newly enacted “Georgia Taxpayer Protection False Claims Act” to some 200 city and county attorneys in Georgia. Although our firm has qui tam False Claims Act cases pending around the country, I take particular interest in making successful this law that I helped draft.

Since then, I have had many calls from attorneys about the new state False Claims Act, which includes qui tam provisions allowing whistleblowers to file suit and share in the recovery. Thus, I am summarizing here some major points about the law:

The Georgia Taxpayer Protection False Claims Act is a state version of the extremely successful federal False Claims Act (FCA). The FCA is the federal government’s primary civil tool for combating fraud directed at taxpayer funds. The majority of states already have such a law designed to stop and deter fraud against state government.

Background: The FCA originally was enacted during the Civil War. In 1986, President Ronald Reagan signed into law an amended version of the FCA, which has since generated more than $30 billion in recoveries from those who have defrauded the government. The FCA also helps deter fraud by those who do business with the government.

State False Claims Acts: As noted, based on the federal FCA’s great successes since 1986, Sen. Charles Grassley has helped lead efforts to encourage states to pass their own versions of the FCA. Congress established financial incentives for states that enact their own versions of the FCA that closely follow the FCA’s terms, through the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005. (Those states receive an extra 10% of Medicaid fraud recoveries.) Congress amended the federal FCA in 2009-2010 to increase the FCA’s effectiveness.

At least twenty-eight other states now have enacted their own False Claims Acts, which are also based on the federal FCA. The majority of these states’ laws protect all state spending of any nature.

On May 24, 2007, Georgia’s “State False Medicaid Claims Act” became law. It is based on the 2007 federal FCA, but protects only Medicaid spending. The new 2012 Georgia Taxpayer Protection False Claims Act now protects all state and local government spending.

In sum, the new Georgia Taxpayer Protection False Claims Act (1) protects all state and local government spending from fraud, and not simply Medicaid spending; and (2) amends the State False Medicaid Claims Act to conform to the 2009-2010 federal FCA amendments. All states are required to conform to those amendments by 2013, or lose the federal incentive of an additional 10% of Medicaid fraud recoveries.
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This morning’s announcement that the SEC has made its first award to a whistleblower under its new SEC Whistleblower Program established by Dodd-Frank leaves some clues about the message the SEC intends to send.

Speed: The SEC wasted no time–the award came barely two years after Dodd-Frank’s passage, and a little more than a year after the SEC finalized its SEC whistleblower rules. SEC Office of the Whistleblower Sean McKessy had seemed eager to have the SEC move quickly to utilize whistleblower information, and he upheld his end of the bargain in making a prompt award.

Modesty of amount: The first award was $50,000, which was 30% of the amount collected by the SEC–the maximum percentage permitted. I was surprised that the SEC did not select a larger dollar case for its first award, in order to attract further attention to the program. It may be that this case was the first one mature enough to conclude. If so, I applaud Sean McKessy for simply making the awards as soon as they can reasonably be made.

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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When the SEC debated in 2011 requiring “internal” reporting within companies as a prerequisite to filing an SEC Whistleblower claim under Dodd-Frank, business interests howled that any other rule would “destroy” compliance programs.

Never mind that the vast majority of whistleblowers have always raised concerns about illegal conduct internally before reporting to the government. Whistleblower lawyers already knew that fact from twenty-five years of experience with the False Claims Act–the nation’s major qui tam whistleblower law that inspired the new SEC Whistleblower Program. The availability of rewards had not dissuaded whistleblowers from reporting their concerns internally for a quarter century.

When I met in 2011 with SEC Chairman Mary Schapiro and the other SEC Commissioners with other whistleblower advocates to discuss the proposed SEC Whistleblower rules, it was apparent–and shocking–that this false argument was being considered seriously. We urged the SEC to rely on these years of experience with the False Claims Act and to reject any such requirement.

The nation’s newest state False Claims Act was signed into law today by Georgia Governor Nathan Deal, after passing unanimously in both houses of the legislature.

The “Georgia Taxpayer Protection False Claims Act” protects all taxpayer dollars spent not only by the State, but also by counties, municipalities, school districts, hospital authorities, and other local public bodies or entities.

Like the federal False Claims Act, this Act combats fraud and false claims against taxpayer funds by imposing “treble” damages and civil penalties of $5,500 to $11,000 for each false or fraudulent claim. It also provides rewards to whistleblowers.

A critical issue in qui tam cases under the False Claims Act is how government lawyers and whistleblower attorneys prove damages caused by the fraud and false claims involved.

This whistleblowerlawyerblog‘s co-author MIchael A. Sullivan has been asked to moderate a panel discussion on “Recent Developments on Damages and Penalties” at a leading American Bar Association conference on the False Claims Act, the 2012 ABA National Institute on the Civil False Claims Act and Qui Tam Enforcement, on June 6-8, 2012 in Washington.

Joining me for this discussion of damages and penalties under the False Claims Act are Sara McLean, Assistant Director of the Commercial Litigation Branch of the Department of Justice; Paul Kaufman, Assistant United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York; Jamie Bennett of Ashcraft & Gerel, LLP; Robert S. Salcido of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP; and Katherine Lauer of Latham & Watkins LLP.

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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