Justice Department Opens 2016 Tax Season With Stern Warning to Taxpayers

The Internal Revenue Service announced that the 2016 individual income tax filing season opened on January 19, 2016, with more than 150 million returns expected to be filed. The IRS expects more than 70 percent of taxpayers to again receive tax refunds this year. Last year, the IRS issued 109 million refunds, with an average refund of $2,797.

Simultaneously sending a stern warning to would-be tax cheats, the Justice Department’s Tax Division announced that a business owner in Alexandria, Virginia, had pleaded guilty to a multi-million dollar conspiracy to defraud the IRS that could land the defendant in jail for four to five years. In that case, the defendant owned and operated a gas station and multiple Subway restaurant franchises. According to court documents, the defendant admitted that between 2008 and 2014, he and his managers failed to deposit all of the gas station and Subway franchises’ gross receipts into corporate bank accounts. Instead, the defendant and his co-conspirators skimmed those receipts and retained them for their personal use, and failed to report those funds to the IRS. IRS investigators built their case by reviewing point-of-sales records for the Subway franchises, which showed total sales of $20 million for this period, but the corporate and partnership tax returns only reflected sales of $14 million. Compounding the problem, certain of the defendant’s businesses did not file returns at all in some years. The defendant also acknowledged filing false individual income tax returns. In his guilty plea, the defendant admitted that his illegal conduct caused a tax loss to the IRS of between $1.5 million and $3.5 million.

Using this defendant’s guilty plea as an opportunity to promote general deterrence and tax compliance, the Justice Department’s press release contains the usual cautionary language typically seen around April 15:

“As we start the 2016 filing season, this case serves as a reminder that the Justice Department, working with its partners at the IRS, remains committed to identifying, investigating and prosecuting businesses and individual taxpayers who willfully fail to file accurate tax returns and pay the taxes due,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Ciraolo. “Every taxpayer owes a duty to their fellow citizens to pay their fair share and those who choose not to do so will face the consequences.”

“Today’s plea of Obayedul Hoque for conspiracy to defraud the United States sends a clear message to would-be tax cheats,” said Chief Richard Weber of IRS-Criminal Investigation (CI). “Whether you fail to file and pay your corporate taxes or your personal income taxes, IRS-CI special agents work diligently to uncover all kinds of fraud and hold everyone accountable. U.S. citizens expect and deserve a level playing field when it comes to paying taxes and there are no better financial investigators in the world when it comes to following the money.”

It is well-known that the Justice Department’s Tax Division typically increases the frequency of its press releases announcing enforcement activity in the weeks leading up to April 15. Academic research confirms that the DOJ issues 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).

With the opening of the 2016 tax filing season, we can expect a steady drumbeat of DOJ press releases with increasingly stronger warnings as April 15 approaches.

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