DOJ Tax Division Chief Outlines Enforcement Priorities for 2016

DOJ logoIn speech delivered on January 29, 2016, at the American Bar Association’s Tax Section Midyear Meeting, Acting Assistant Attorney General Caroline D. Ciraolo of the Justice Department’s Tax Division recapped her agency’s successes during 2015, and outlined its priorities for 2016. A number of key details regarding the government’s criminal and civil tax enforcement agenda were disclosed during the speech, as follows:

  • Offshore tax enforcement remains among the Tax Division’s top priorities.  Since 2008, DOJ has publicly charged more than 100 accountholders and nearly 50 individuals who have aided and assisted U.S. taxpayers in concealing foreign accounts and evading their U.S. tax obligations.  The government has also reached final criminal resolutions with six foreign financial institutions, including UBS and Credit Suisse, the two largest bank in Switzerland.
  • The Tax Division recently concluded the Swiss Bank Program, with 80 banks reaching resolutions and paying over $1.3 billion in penalties.
  • More than 54,000 individual taxpayers have made voluntary disclosures to the IRS regarding undisclosed offshore assets, paying over $8 billion in taxes, penalties, and interest.
  • The Tax Division continues to pursue investigations of banks outside of Switzerland, including in countries such as Belize, the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, the Cook Islands, India, Israel, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, the Marshall Islands and Panama.
  • The Tax Division encourages “outreach by practitioners” and “encourage[s] financial institutions and individuals who have engaged in criminal conduct to contact the department to discuss their options.”
  • In addition to criminal enforcement, the Tax Division is using civil enforcement tools to pursue those who continue to conceal foreign accounts and assets and evade their U.S. tax obligations.  DOJ will continue to work with the IRS with respect to the examination and assessment of penalties for violations of the FBAR reporting requirements, file suits to collect outstanding FBAR penalties and defend against complaints for refund of FBAR penalties paid.
  • The Tax Division will continue to work closely with the IRS in its efforts to obtain foreign account records.  Using the “Required Records Doctrine,” DOJ has successfully challenged motions to quash grand jury subpoenas in criminal cases and obtained orders enforcing summonses in civil cases.  “At this point, the message is clear: taxpayers are required to maintain foreign records and produce them upon request.”
  • The DOJ will continue to make of “John Doe” summonses where the IRS is aware of possible violations of the internal revenue laws by individuals whose identities are unknown. In addition, the Tax Division will use Bank of Nova Scotia summonses and grand jury subpoenas, which seek to compel a domestic financial institution to produce records located in a foreign country.
  • The Tax Division is willing to assist treaty partners in their own tax enforcement efforts, as evidenced by a recent case, Dileng v. Commissioner.  In that case, the taxpayer had unpaid tax liabilities in excess of $2.5 million in Denmark. Under the U.S.-Denmark Tax Treaty, the Danish taxing authority submitted a collection assistance request and a revenue claim to the IRS, requesting that the IRS assist in collecting Mr. Dileng’s Danish liabilities.  Mr. Dileng filed suit, seeking to enjoin collection efforts by the IRS. The district court dismissed that suit, finding that an accepted revenue claim must be treated like a U.S. tax assessment for collection purposes within the United States, even though Mr. Dileng is prohibited from challenging those liabilities in U.S. courts.
  • In 2016, we can expect additional civil enforcement actions and ongoing and new criminal investigations and prosecutions.  Taxpayers participating in the OVDP or Streamlined programs may be contacted and interviewed by the IRS/DOJ as part of their ongoing cooperation.  Taxpayers who filed returns and FBARs pursuant to the streamlined filing procedures or the Delinquent International Information Return or FBAR submission procedures should be “very concerned if they falsely claimed to have engaged in non-willful conduct or acted with reasonable cause.”
  • “[F]inancial institutions and individuals who have facilitated the concealment of offshore accounts and the evasion of U.S. tax obligations would be well advised to anticipate an investigation and consider voluntarily disclosing any criminal activity to the department before they become the subject of an investigation.”
  • In the past year, the Tax Division has hired more than 80 new attorneys.  Currently, the Tax Division has more than 200 civil trial attorneys, more than 100 prosecutors and approximately 50 appellate attorneys. The Tax Division has established an international training series to ensure that its attorneys are familiar with the relevant issues and available tools in offshore enforcement and are working very closely with the IRS to identify those U.S. taxpayers failing to comply with their tax obligations.
  • “Those who underestimate the ability of the United States to pursue offshore tax evasion do so at their own peril.”

The text of the Acting Assistant Attorney General’s speech is set forth below.

Thank you for that kind introduction.  Let me begin by saying how nice it is to return to the American Bar Association (ABA) Tax Section meetings.  I’d like to focus my remarks this afternoon on the Justice Department Tax Division’s offshore enforcement efforts.  As you know, it has been a very busy year for the Tax Division, and I’m happy to report on our accomplishments and discuss what lays ahead in 2016.

First, a bit of history for those of you who may not have spent your summer in Switzerland or encouraging countless numbers of clients to participate in the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) offshore voluntary disclosure programs.  Offshore tax enforcement has been and remains among the department’s top priorities.  Since 2008, the department has publicly charged more than 100 accountholders and nearly 50 individuals who have aided and assisted U.S. taxpayers in concealing foreign accounts and evading their U.S. tax obligations.  We also reached final criminal resolutions with six foreign financial institutions, including Credit Suisse, which pleaded guilty in May 2014 and agreed to pay $2.6 billion for its role in assisting U.S. taxpayers to evade their U.S. reporting and tax obligations.

On Aug. 29, 2013, the department announced the Swiss Bank Program, which provided a path for Swiss banks to resolve potential criminal liabilities in the United States.  Banks already under criminal investigation related to their Swiss-banking activities, identified as Category 1 banks, and all individuals were expressly excluded from the program.

Under the program, Swiss banks about which we had little or no information came forward and self-identified as having helped U.S. taxpayers to hide foreign accounts and evade their U.S. tax obligations.  In exchange for a non-prosecution agreement, these institutions, identified as Category 2 banks, made a complete disclosure of their cross-border activities, provided detailed information on accounts in which U.S. taxpayers have a direct or indirect interest, are cooperating in treaty requests for account information, are providing detailed information as to other banks that transferred funds into secret accounts or that accepted funds when secret accounts were closed and must cooperate in any related criminal and civil proceedings for the life of those proceedings.  Additionally, the Category 2 banks have paid appropriate penalties, which were mitigated with proof that the U.S. taxpayer declared the account, the account was reported by the bank or the U.S. taxpayer came into a voluntary disclosure program at the bank’s urging.

On March 30, 2015, the department signed the first non-prosecution agreement with BSI SA and announced its goal to complete the Category 2 bank agreements by year end.  I’m very proud to announce that earlier this week, the department signed the final Category 2 bank non-prosecution agreement with HSZH, imposing a penalty in excess of $49 million.  For those who are counting, in the last 10 months, the department executed 78 agreements with 80 banks and imposed more than $1.3 billion in Swiss Bank Program penalties.

The department also signed a non-prosecution agreement with Finacor, a Swiss asset management firm, reflecting the department’s 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 conclusion of the Category 2 agreements is a significant milestone in our continuing effort to shut down offshore tax evasion.  Swiss banks have revealed the names of thousands of U.S. accountholders, a substantial number of whom have voluntarily disclosed their accounts to the IRS, and are providing information for treaty requests to obtain the names and account records of those individuals who have refused to waive Swiss bank secrecy.  The program has driven thousands of taxpayers into the IRS voluntary disclosure programs.  In October 2015, the IRS reported more than 54,000 voluntary offshore disclosures and the collection of more than $8 billion in taxes, penalties and interest.  These figures have substantially increased since the program was announced in August 2013, due in part to the pressure applied by the Swiss banks on their accountholders to come into compliance.

Critical to the success of the program, in addition to the unwavering support of the department’s leadership, was the substantial assistance of IRS-Criminal Investigation and the Large Business & International Division.  Special agents, revenue agents and analysts have been dedicated to the program for two years, working side by side with the Tax Division’s civil trial attorneys, prosecutors and support staff to carefully review and consider the tremendous volume of information produced by the Category 2 banks.  I cannot begin to tell you how proud I am of those involved in this program and the rest of the Tax Division, which stepped up to the plate to handle more work and larger dockets, while their colleagues continued this pursuit.

While I am pleased that we have completed the agreements with the Category 2 banks, it is important to note that our work is far from done, and we do not rest on our laurels.  Tax Division attorneys and IRS personnel are reviewing the information received from Swiss banks that, under Category 3 and Category 4 of the program, maintain that they did not commit any violations of U.S. law, but seek a non-target letter after providing information required by the program.  We are also reviewing the information provided by the Category 2 banks, responses to our treaty requests and information from whistleblowers and cooperators to pursue criminal investigations and work with our colleagues at the IRS on civil enforcement efforts.

Outside the program, we continue to pursue pending Category 1 bank investigations.  We are looking well beyond Switzerland, to jurisdictions that many of you have added to your passports – for example: Belize, the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, the Cook Islands, India, Israel, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, the Marshall Islands and Panama, just to name a few.  We encourage this outreach by practitioners and encourage financial institutions and individuals who have engaged in criminal conduct to contact the department to discuss their options.

While much attention has been paid to our criminal enforcement efforts, we are also using civil enforcement tools to pursue those who continue to conceal foreign accounts and assets and evade their U.S. tax obligations.  For example, we will continue to work with our colleagues at the IRS with respect to the examination and assessment of penalties for violations of the Foreign Bank and Financial Account (FBAR) reporting requirements, file suits to collect outstanding FBAR penalties and defend against complaints for refund of FBAR penalties paid.

We are also working closely with the IRS in its efforts to obtain foreign account records.  Under the Required Records Doctrine, the department has successfully challenged motions to quash grand jury subpoenas in criminal cases and obtained orders enforcing summonses in civil cases.  At this point, the message is clear: taxpayers are required to maintain foreign records and produce them upon request.

Where the IRS is aware of possible violations of the internal revenue laws by individuals whose identities are unknown, the department has sought and will continue to seek orders authorizing the issuance of “John Doe” summonses.  For instance, this past September, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida authorized the issuance of summonses to Citibank and Bank of America to produce records identifying U.S. taxpayers with accounts at Belize Bank International Limited, Belize Bank Limited or their affiliates, including other foreign banks that used these two banks’ correspondent accounts to service U.S. clients.  The court also granted the IRS permission to seek records related to Citibank’s and Bank of America’s correspondent accounts for Belize Corporate Services and information related to its deposit accounts at Bank of America.  Belize Corporate Services is incorporated and based in Belize and offers, among other things, the purchase of “shelf” Belizean international business companies.

The government’s offshore enforcement arsenal also includes Bank of Nova Scotia summonses and grand jury subpoenas, which seek to compel a domestic financial institution to produce records located in a foreign country.  These summonses or grand jury subpoenas have been utilized and upheld by courts despite the fact that producing the records in the United States would cause the financial institution to violate the laws of a foreign country.  In appropriate circumstances the department will use – and enforce – such subpoenas and summonses.

We also stand ready to assist our treaty partners in their own tax enforcement efforts, as evidenced in Dileng v. Commissioner.  Mr. Dileng has unpaid tax liabilities in excess of $2.5 million in Denmark, which he has challenged in Danish courts.  Like many tax treaties, the U.S.-Denmark Tax Treaty contains a provision allowing a treaty partner to request that the counterpart assist in pursuing collection of domestic taxes in the counterpart jurisdiction.  Pursuant to a collection assistance provision in the U.S.-Denmark Tax Treaty, the Danish taxing authority submitted a collection assistance request and a revenue claim to the IRS, requesting that the IRS assist in collecting Mr. Dileng’s Danish liabilities.  Mr. Dileng filed suit, seeking to enjoin collection efforts by the IRS.

The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia dismissed the suit, finding that an accepted revenue claim must be treated like a U.S. tax assessment for collection purposes within the United States, even though Mr. Dileng is prohibited from challenging those liabilities in U.S. courts.  The court found that the Anti-Injunction Act and the tax exception to the Declaratory Judgment Act barred him from bringing his claim to stop the IRS from collecting and that the United States had not waived sovereign immunity for his suit.  The court further found that collection under the circumstances did not implicate Mr. Dileng’s due process rights because he is indeed challenging his tax liabilities in Danish courts.

The Dileng case, like similar orders obtained from seven federal courts in 2013 authorizing the IRS to serve John Doe summonses on certain U.S. banks and financial institutions seeking information about persons who used specific credit or debit cards in Norway, demonstrate that the IRS and the department take the United States’ treaty responsibilities seriously.  We will continue to use the collection assistance provisions in our tax treaties to ensure U.S. taxpayers abide by their tax obligations in the United States, and we will continue to do our best to uphold our reciprocal obligations to our treaty partners.

So what can you expect in 2016?  Additional civil enforcement actions and ongoing and new criminal investigations and prosecutions.  Taxpayers who have participated in the IRS voluntary disclosure programs may be contacted and interviewed by the IRS and the department as part of their ongoing cooperation.  Taxpayers who filed returns and FBARs pursuant to the streamlined filing procedures or the Delinquent International Information Return or FBAR submission procedures should be very concerned if they falsely claimed to have engaged in non-willful conduct or acted with reasonable cause.  And financial institutions and individuals who have facilitated the concealment of offshore accounts and the evasion of U.S. tax obligations would be well advised to anticipate an investigation and consider voluntarily disclosing any criminal activity to the department before they become the subject of an investigation.

In the past year, the Tax Division has hired more than 80 new attorneys.  We currently have more than 200 civil trial attorneys, more than 100 prosecutors and approximately 50 appellate attorneys working hard in support of the Tax Division’s mission to enforce the nation’s tax laws fully, fairly and consistently, through both criminal and civil litigation.  We have established an international training series to ensure that our attorneys are familiar with the relevant issues and available tools in offshore enforcement and are working very closely with our partners at the IRS to identify those U.S. taxpayers failing to comply with their tax obligations.  Those who underestimate the ability of the United States to pursue offshore tax evasion do so at their own peril.

In closing, it’s an honor to serve as Acting Assistant Attorney General of the Tax Division, and it’s a great time to be involved in tax enforcement.  I anticipate a very busy 2016, and I’m looking forward to continuing to work with each of you to bring your clients into compliance.  Thank you again for your time, and I hope each of you enjoys the rest of the meeting.

 

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.

Justice Department Announces Historic Conclusion of Swiss Bank Program for Category 2 Institutions

DOJ logoThe Justice Department achieved a historic milestone in its ground-breaking Swiss Bank Program with its announcement today of the final Category 2 bank resolution. The Justice Department executed its 80th and final agreement with HSZH Verwaltungs AG, which agreed to pay a civil penalty of more than $49 million. All told, the 80 Category 2 Swiss banks which resolved their criminal tax exposure with the U.S. government will pay more than $1.36 billion in penalties. Perhaps even more importantly, every Category 2 bank in the Swiss Bank Program is required to cooperate in any future related criminal or civil proceedings, thereby ensuring that the Justice Department will have the complete assistance from each bank as the U.S. government pursues leads throughout the world.

By all accounts, the Swiss Bank Program appears to have been an incredible success for the Justice Department (and IRS) in its efforts to combat offshore tax evasion. Never before had the U.S. government offered an amnesty program to the entire banking industry in a particular country, and at the time the program was unveiled in 2013, it was not clear that the program would be a success or that Swiss banks would be interested. But given the overwhelming demonstration of interest from Swiss banks, the substantial monetary penalties collected, and the wealth of information shared with the U.S., the program can fairly be declared a significant win for the U.S. government. Given the success of the Swiss Bank Program, it will be interesting to see whether the Justice Department offers a similar program to banks in other countries or regions.

Today’s press release included the following quote from the Attorney General thanking the Swiss government for its efforts in making the Swiss Bank Program so successful:

“The Department of Justice is committed to aggressively pursuing tax evasion, and the Swiss Bank Program has been a central component of that effort,” said Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch. “Through this initiative, we have uncovered those who help facilitate evasion schemes and those who hide funds in secret offshore accounts. We have improved our ability to return tax dollars to the United States. And we have pursued investigations into banks and individuals. I would like to thank the Swiss government for their cooperation in this effort, and I look forward to continuing our work together to root out fraud and corruption wherever it is found.”

Other Justice Department officials echoed the Attorney General’s sentiments, and noted that the Swiss Bank Program has provided the DOJ and IRS with a wealth of information that is being mined for leads that are being pursued civilly and criminally throughout the world:

“The department’s Swiss Bank Program has been a successful, innovative effort to get the financial institutions that facilitated fraud on the American tax system to come forward with information about their wrongdoing – and to ensure that they are held responsible for it,” said Acting Associate Attorney General Stuart F. Delery. “As we have seen over the last year, Swiss banks are paying an appropriate penalty for their misconduct, and the information and continuing cooperation we have required the banks to provide in order to participate in the program is allowing us to systematically attack offshore tax avoidance schemes.”

“The completion of the agreements under Category 2 of the Swiss Bank Program represents a substantial milestone in the department’s ongoing efforts to combat offshore tax evasion, and we remain committed to holding financial institutions, professionals and individual taxpayers accountable for their respective roles in concealing foreign accounts and assets, and evading U.S. tax obligations,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Caroline D. Ciraolo of the Justice Department’s Tax Division. “Using the flood of information flowing from various sources, the department is investigating this criminal conduct, referring appropriate matters to the Internal Revenue Service for civil enforcement and pursuing leads in jurisdictions well beyond Switzerland. Individuals and entities engaged in offshore tax evasion are well advised to come forward now, because the window to get to us before we get to you is rapidly closing.”

Top officials from the Internal Revenue Service similarly commended today’s announcement, noting that more than 54,000 taxpayers have come forward to voluntarily disclose their previously-undisclosed offshore assets:

“Today’s resolution with HSZH Verwaltungs AG brings to a close this phase of DOJ’s Swiss Bank Program,” said acting Deputy Commissioner International David Horton of the IRS Large Business & International Division. “The comprehensive success of this program sends a powerful message to those who might think they can evade their tax obligations by going offshore. A whole sector of financial institutions, 80 banks in all, has been held accountable for aiding the use of secret accounts and circumventing U.S. law. In addition to the more than $1.3 billion in penalties from these resolutions, more than 54,000 taxpayers have come forward to the IRS to pay more than $8 billion in taxes, interest and penalties.”

“The bank agreement with HSZH announced today may bring an end to one phase of the Swiss Bank Program, but more importantly it brings us closer to our overall goal of compliance and accountability for financial institutions and U.S. taxpayers,” said Chief Richard Weber of IRS-Criminal Investigation. “The data received from each agreement on the accounts, schemes and linkages is extremely valuable in combating international tax evasion. I could not be more proud of the effort of our special agents who worked tirelessly to make this program a success in coordination with the Department of Justice.”

The Swiss Bank Program, which was announced on Aug. 29, 2013, provides a path for Swiss banks to resolve potential criminal liabilities in the United States. Swiss banks eligible to enter the program were required to advise the department by Dec. 31, 2013, that they had reason to believe that they had committed tax-related criminal offenses in connection with undeclared U.S.-related accounts. Banks already under criminal investigation related to their Swiss-banking activities and all individuals were expressly excluded from the program.

Under the program, banks are required to:

  • Make a complete disclosure of their cross-border activities;
  • Provide detailed information on an account-by-account basis for accounts in which U.S. taxpayers have a direct or indirect interest;
  • Cooperate in treaty requests for account information;
  • Provide detailed information as to other banks that transferred funds into secret accounts or that accepted funds when secret accounts were closed;
  • Agree to close accounts of accountholders who fail to come into compliance with U.S. reporting obligations; and
  • Pay appropriate penalties.

Swiss banks meeting all of the above requirements are eligible for a non-prosecution agreement.

Taxpayers who have still not “come clean” and declared their offshore assets may still take advantage of various IRS programs, such as the Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Program or the Streamlined Filing Compliance Procedures, but the price of admission has now increased if they had accounts at HSZH:

Most U.S. taxpayers who enter the IRS Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Program to resolve undeclared offshore accounts will pay a penalty equal to 27.5 percent of the high value of the accounts. On Aug. 4, 2014, the IRS increased the penalty to 50 percent if, at the time the taxpayer initiated their disclosure, either a foreign financial institution at which the taxpayer had an account or a facilitator who helped the taxpayer establish or maintain an offshore arrangement had been publicly identified as being under investigation, the recipient of a John Doe summons or cooperating with a government investigation, including the execution of a deferred prosecution agreement or non-prosecution agreement. With today’s announcement of this non-prosecution agreement, noncompliant U.S. accountholders at HSZH must now pay that 50 percent penalty to the IRS if they wish to enter the IRS Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Program.

Three More Non-Prosecution Agreements with Swiss Banks for a Total Penalty of $20 Million

Three more Swiss banks have reached resolutions with the Justice Department under its Swiss Bank Program – Bank La Roche, St. Galler Kantonalbank AG (SGKB), and E. Gutzwiller & Cie, Banquiers.   To resolve their respective tax-related criminal offenses, La Roche agreed to pay a penalty of approximately $9.3 million, SGKB agreed to pay a penalty of almost $9.5 million, and Gutzwiller agreed to pay a penalty of $1.5 million.

Importantly, the DOJ emphasized the data it is obtaining as a result of the program and how it is using this data in its enforcement efforts:

“The cumulative penalties the Swiss Bank Program has generated to date are extraordinary,” said Chief Richard Weber of IRS-Criminal Investigation (CI).  “However, a significant element of the program is the highly-detailed account and transactional data that has been provided to IRS specifically for law enforcement purposes.  We will continue to use this information to vigorously pursue U.S. taxpayers who may still be trying to illegally conceal offshore accounts, ensuring we are all playing by the same rules.”

The DOJ described the relevant conduct of each of the banks in relation to their U.S. accountholders as follows:

Bank La Roche (announced 9/15/2015)

La Roche was founded in 1787 and is based in Basel, Switzerland, with offices in Olten and Bern, Switzerland.  In 2011, La Roche closed a Hong Kong asset management subsidiary that opened in 2008.  On Feb. 13, 2015, La Roche sold its business to Notenstein Privatbank AG.  Most of La Roche’s employees and the clients of La Roche, with the exception of U.S. taxpayers and a few other clients, will be transferred to Notenstein Privatbank AG.  The transaction is expected to close in October 2015.  Thereafter, La Roche intends to wind down its remaining business and relinquish its banking license.

La Roche assisted some U.S. clients in opening and maintaining undeclared accounts in Switzerland and concealing the assets and income the clients held in their accounts from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).  La Roche used a variety of means to assist some U.S. clients in concealing the assets and income the clients held in their La Roche undeclared accounts, including by

– providing numbered accounts for 70 U.S. taxpayers;

– holding bank statements and other mail relating to 66 U.S.-related numbered accounts, as well as 20 named accounts of U.S. taxpayers domiciled in the United States;

– allowing substantial cash and precious metal withdrawals in connection with the closures of 27 U.S. taxpayers’ accounts for a total amount of $11.6 million

– maintaining records in which certain U.S. taxpayers expressly instructed La Roche not to disclose their names to the IRS;

– providing travel cash cards to five U.S. taxpayers upon their request; and

– opening an account in June 2010 for a U.S. taxpayer who left UBS and who transferred $126,000 from UBS to the La Roche account.

Due in part to the assistance of La Roche and its personnel, and with the knowledge that Swiss banking secrecy laws would prevent La Roche from disclosing their identities to the IRS, some U.S. clients of La Roche filed false and fraudulent U.S. Individual Income Tax Returns (IRS Forms 1040), which failed to report their interests in their undeclared accounts and the related income.  Some of La Roche’s U.S. clients also failed to file and otherwise report their undeclared accounts on Reports of Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts (FBARs).Since Aug. 1, 2008, La Roche maintained 201 U.S.-related accounts with a maximum aggregate value of approximately $193.9 million.  136 of these accounts were beneficially owned by U.S. clients domiciled in the United States, 36 of which were maintained in the names of entities.  La Roche will pay a penalty of $9.296 million.

As part of its participation in the Swiss Bank Program, La Roche provided information concerning 10 U.S. client accounts held at La Roche in Switzerland since August 2008 sufficient to make treaty requests to the Swiss competent authority for U.S. client account records.  It also provided a list of the names and functions of individuals who structured, operated or supervised the cross-border business at La Roche.

In 51 instances, La Roche maintained accounts for U.S. taxpayers as beneficial owners of accounts held by non-U.S. corporations, foundations or other entities, some of which were sham entities that concealed the beneficial ownership of the U.S. taxpayers.  These entities included Liechtenstein foundations, two of which were established or administered by a Liechtenstein trust company, whose manager and director had a long-standing personal relationship with La Roche.

St. Galler Kantonalbank AG (announced today)

St. Galler Kantonalbank AG (SGKB) has its headquarters in the Canton of St. Gallen, Switzerland.  It was founded in 1868 to provide credit services to Cantonal residents and to assist in the development of the regional economy.  By Cantonal law, the Canton of St. Gallen is SGKB’s majority shareholder, owning 54.8 percent of SGKB’s shares.

SGKB offered a variety of traditional Swiss banking services that it knew could assist, and that did in fact assist, U.S. clients in the concealment of assets and income from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).  These services included hold mail, as well as code name or numbered account services.  These services helped U.S. clients eliminate the paper trail associated with the undeclared assets and income they held at SGKB in Switzerland.  By accepting and maintaining such accounts, SGKB assisted some U.S. taxpayers in evading their U.S. tax obligations.

SGKB agreed to open accounts for at least 58 U.S. taxpayers who had left other banks being investigated by the department without ensuring that each such account was compliant with U.S. tax law from their inception at SGKB.  SGKB also issued checks, including series of checks, in amounts of less than $10,000 that were drawn on accounts of U.S. taxpayers or structures in at least nine cases, totaling $3 million.  For example, one U.S. taxpayer made 31 wire transfers for just less than $10,000 between June 2012 and December 2012.  SGKB further processed large cash withdrawals totaling approximately $5.8 million for at least 14 U.S. taxpayers at or around the time the clients’ accounts were closed, even though SGKB knew, or had reason to know, the accounts contained undeclared assets.

Since Aug. 1, 2008, SGKB held accounts for 41 entities or structured accounts.  Eight of these accounts came to SGKB as part of the acquisition of business from Hyposwiss Privatbank AG, of which SGKB formerly was the parent company.  Of the remaining 33 entities, 18 were incorporated at or around the time their SGKB accounts were opened.  These entities were incorporated in Switzerland, Liechtenstein, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, the United States, Ireland, Panama, Haiti and Belize.

In August 2008, SGKB mandated that no new funds would be accepted from U.S. residents without a signed IRS Form W-9.  However, certain executives had full discretion and authority to make exceptions to this policy, in keeping with SGKB’s general bank policy of permitting flexibility in its directives.  One executive first requested the authority to make a specific exception because he already had agreed to accept a “pipeline” of problematic U.S.-related accounts from UBS and wanted to keep his word to his former UBS colleague.  This “pipeline” consisted of six U.S.-related accounts with approximately $9.2 million in assets under management.  This executive granted another significant exception from this policy in connection with clients of an external asset manager.  At least 72 accounts with approximately $150 million in assets under management were opened at an SGKB subsidiary between late October and December 2008 without a Form W-9 as an exception to SGKB’s policy.  The majority of these accounts were transferred from UBS.

Since Aug. 1, 2008, SGKB held a total of 626 U.S.-related accounts with approximately $303 million in assets under management.  SGKB will pay a penalty of $9.481 million.

Gutzwiller & Cie, Banquiers (announced today)

Gutzwiller & Cie, Banquiers, was founded in 1886 and is headquartered in Basel, Switzerland.  This entity is affiliated with two asset managing entities in Geneva and Zurich, Gutzwiller SA Geneve and Gutzwiller AG Zurich, respectively (collectively Gutzwiller).

Of the 128 U.S.-related accounts at Gutzwiller, approximately 96 used hold mail services.  Gutzwiller also opened and maintained 11 U.S.-related accounts held by non-U.S. entities, such as a Panama foundation or a British Virgin Islands corporation, with the knowledge that a U.S. person was the true beneficial owner of assets.  With respect to some of those 11 accounts, the entity properly identified the U.S. beneficial owners of the assets for Swiss “Know Your Customer” rules, but Gutzwiller’s IRS Forms W-8BEN falsely declared that the beneficial owner of the account was not a U.S. person.  The false Forms W-8BEN thus allowed the true ownership of the accounts to be concealed.

In addition, Gutzwiller accepted an account from a U.S. citizen and resident who presented a U.S. passport at the account opening in 1992.  At various times, the U.S. client refused to sign a Form W-9, prohibited anything relating to the account from being reported to the IRS or other U.S. governmental authority, and refused to respond to Gutzwiller’s questions about whether the account was declared to the IRS.  Although Gutzwiller did not use code names or numbers to communicate with clients, the U.S. client communicated with Gutzwiller by signing communications with an identifying number.  Beginning in 2009, Gutzwiller began to urge the U.S. client to close the account.  Over approximately the next year, the U.S. client began liquidating the account by withdrawing large amounts of cash in person in the form of U.S. dollars, Swiss francs, Euros and U.S. travelers checks.  Gutzwiller also honored the U.S. client’s requests to prepare numerous checks written in amounts below $10,000, which the U.S. client then picked up at Gutzwiller.  In late 2010, Gutzwiller declined a request to liquidate remaining funds in the account in a similar manner and informed the U.S. client that it would only close the account through a single payment in the form of a cash withdrawal, a single check or a wire transfer.  The account was closed in 2011 with a wire transfer of more than $3 million to another Swiss bank, without the U.S. client coming into compliance with U.S. tax obligations.  The U.S. client later voluntarily disclosed the account at Gutzwiller and the other Swiss bank to the IRS.

Since Aug. 1, 2008, Gutzwiller held a total of 128 U.S.-related accounts with a high value of approximately $271 million.  Gutzwiller will pay a penalty of $1.556 million.

Under the Swiss Bank Program, eligible Swiss banks that had notified the DOJ by December 31, 2013 of an intent to participate in the Program were eligible to resolve any potential criminal liabilities in the U.S. by completing the following:

  • Make a complete disclosure of their cross-border activities;
  • Provide detailed information on an account-by-account basis for accounts in which U.S. taxpayers have a direct or indirect interest;
  • Cooperate in treaty requests for account information;
  • Provide detailed information as to other banks that transferred funds into secret accounts or that accepted funds when secret accounts were closed;
  • Agree to close accounts of accountholders who fail to come into compliance with U.S. reporting obligations; and
  • Pay appropriate penalties.

Swiss banks meeting all of the above requirements are eligible for a non-prosecution agreement.

According to the terms of these non-prosecution agreements, each bank agrees to cooperate in any related criminal or civil proceedings, demonstrate its implementation of controls to stop misconduct involving undeclared U.S. accounts and pay penalties in return for the DOJ’s agreement not to prosecute these banks for tax-related criminal offenses.

The Justice Department released the following documents with each of these announcements:

  • The La Roche non-prosecution agreement and statement of facts (available here).
  • The SGKB non-prosecution agreement and statement of facts (available here).
  • The Gutzwiller non-prosecution agreement and statement of facts (available here).

IRS Targets a Belize Bank with a “John Doe” Summons

The Internal Revenue Service will now obtain information on U.S. accountholders at a Belize bank – Belize Bank International Limited (“BBIL”) or Belize Bank Limited (“BBL”). Yesterday, the Justice Department announced that a federal court has authorized the IRS to serve a “John Doe” summons on Bank of America, N.A. and Citibank, N.A. seeking records for activity from 2006 through 2014 at the correspondent accounts held by BBIL and BBL at Bank of America and Citibank. Once the IRS receives these records, it will be able to identify U.S. taxpayers who held financial accounts at BBIL or BBL and also identify other foreign banks that used BBIL or BBL to serve U.S. clients.

An important aspect to this announcement is that the reason for requesting the “John Doe” summons came from information learned by an IRS investigator having interviewed five taxpayers who disclosed their BBIL or BBL accounts through the IRS’s amnesty program.

In announcing the “John Doe” summons yesterday, the DOJ summarized the basis for the “John Doe” summonses as follows:

According to the IRS declaration, BBL is incorporated and based in Belize, and directly owns BBIL.  The IRS declaration further states that Belize Corporate Services (BCS) is incorporated and based in Belize and offers corporate services including the purchase of “shelf” Belizean international business companies.  BBL, BBIL and BCS are all corporate subsidiaries of BCB Holdings Limited, according to the declaration.  The declaration describes and IRS Revenue Agent’s review of information submitted by BBL and BBIL customers who disclosed their foreign accounts through the IRS offshore voluntary disclosure programs.  The customers in the “John Doe” class may have failed to report income, evaded income taxes, or otherwise violated the internal revenue laws of the United States, according the declaration.

The petition filed by the DOJ (found here) provided more detail and stated that “BBIL and BBL are related banks based in Belize that market their ability to provide secret banking services to foreign residents. Belize Corporate Services is a related corporate service provider that has marketed its ability to set up Belize corporate entities, used to hide the identity of account owners.” The DOJ made these assertions based upon information learned by the IRS in “interviews, voluntary disclosures, and records of criminal prosecutions.” The interviews were of five taxpayers who disclosed their offshore accounts at BBIL or BBL through the IRS’s offshore voluntary disclosure program. Each of the taxpayers admitted to opening accounts at BBIL or BBL, to requesting that account information not be mailed to them in the U.S., and to failing to report income earned in the accounts to the IRS. All but one of these taxpayers admitted to utilizing a Belize corporation to obtain the account at BBIL or BBL and failing to report the corporation on U.S. tax returns. This information, plus publicly-available information gathered through internet research, provided the factual basis for the petition.

In its announcement, the DOJ emphasized its focus on pursuing taxpayers with undisclosed foreign accounts:

“The Department and the IRS are using every tool available to identify and investigate those individuals determined to evade their U.S. tax and reporting obligations through the use of offshore financial accounts and foreign entities,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Caroline D. Ciraolo of the Justice Department’s Tax Division.  “These John Doe summonses will provide detailed information about individuals using financial institutions in Belize and, to the extent funds were transferred, other jurisdictions.  But rest assured, we are receiving information from many sources regarding hidden foreign accounts and offshore schemes.  The time to come clean is now – before we knock on your door.”

“This court action further demonstrates our relentless efforts to pursue and catch those evading taxes with hidden offshore accounts no matter where they are or what structures are used to hide behind,” said Commissioner John Koskinen of the IRS.  “This court action also reinforces the ongoing importance of the John Doe summons in international tax enforcement.”

Serving a “John Doe” summons on a correspondent bank has proven to be an effective government tool to discover potential tax evaders. It was the result of a “John Doe” summons served on UBS AG that the DOJ obtained records of U.S. accountholders at Swiss bank Wegelin & Co., which was Switzerland’s largest bank and closed after pleading guilty to conspiring to assist U.S. accountholders to evade taxes and paying restitution of $57.8 million. A “John Doe” summons was also utilized in 2013 to obtain records of Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce FirstCaribbean International Bank by having been served on Wells Fargo, N.A., where FCIB held a correspondent account.

Ninth Circuit Reverses Tax Fraud Conviction Where Returns Were Not “Filed” With Internal Revenue Service

Yesterday the Ninth Circuit addressed the question of whether an individual can be convicted of filing false tax returns pursuant to 26 U.S.C. 7206(1) where the tax returns in question were tendered to an IRS agent during an audit, and were not filed with an IRS Service Center in the normal course. See United States v. Boitano, No. 14-10139 (slip opinion available here). The defendant (who was also an accountant) had been convicted following a jury trial of making a false statement under penalty of perjury on personal income tax returns, and he appealed his conviction to the Ninth Circuit.

The Ninth Circuit’s opinion summarizes the pertinent facts as follows:

During the period relevant to this appeal, Boitano was a partner in Boitano, Sargent & Lilly, an accounting firm. His responsibilities included preparing tax returns and representing clients during IRS audits, but Boitano did not file his own income tax returns for the years 1991 to 2007.

The IRS undertook an examination in 1992/1993 and in 2004. Boitano still did not file any returns, and his case was referred to the IRS’s Special Enforcement Program.

In June 2009, Special Enforcement Program Agent Nick Connors requested a meeting with Boitano regarding his failure to file returns for 2001 through 2007. Connors and Boitano ultimately met three times. During the third meeting, Boitano handed Connors income tax returns for 2001, 2002, and 2003. The returns were signed under penalty of perjury by Boitano and his wife. Connors stamped the first page of the returns “Internal Revenue Service, SB/SE – Compliance Field, Sep 04, 2009, Area 7, San Francisco, CA,” and hand wrote “delinquent return secured by exam” on the first page of each. Per Boitano’s request, Connors copied the first page of the returns and gave the copies to Boitano as receipts.

The returns Boitano handed to Connors reported “estimated tax payments” that had not been made. The 2001 return reported a $26,000 payment, the 2002 return reported a $38,000 payment, and the 2003 return reported a $57,000 payment. In fact, the government calculated that Boitano owed the IRS $52,953.80 for 2001, $72,797.00 for 2002, and $104,545.94 for 2003.

Agent Connors quickly realized that the IRS did not have record of receiving the claimed estimated tax payments. Therefore, instead of sending the returns to the IRS service center for processing, he confronted Boitano with the discrepancy. According to Connors, Boitano “physically got a little pale and said that he was not sure why there [were] differences.” Soon thereafter, Connors sent Boitano a letter asking that he substantiate the estimated tax payments, or, if those estimates were not correct, that he identify the correct estimated amounts with “a written statement dated and signed explaining in detail why you believed the estimated payments to be the amounts reported on the delinquent returns filed on 9/4/09.” Boitano never responded.

Boitano was indicted and charged with three counts of making false statements under 26 U.S.C. § 7206(1). Section 7206(1) establishes that it is a felony for any person to “[w]illfully make[] and subscribe[] any return, statement, or other document, which contains or is verified by a written declaration that it is made under the penalties of perjury, and which he does not believe to be true and correct as to every material matter.” Boitano was also charged with three misdemeanor counts of failure to file taxes under 26 U.S.C. § 7203. He pleaded guilty to the three misdemeanors, but proceeded to trial on the felony charges.

The defendant argued at trial that filing is an essential element of § 7206(1) and that his act of handing the returns to Agent Connors did not constitute “filing” within the applicable IRS statute and regulations. The government agreed that filing is an element of the charged offense, but argued the filing element was satisfied by the uncontradicted evidence showing that the defendant handed fraudulent returns to Agent Connors. The district court agreed with the government. Over objection, Connors was permitted to testify that the defendant “filed 2001, 2002, and 2003 delinquent tax returns with me.” Connors provided additional foundational testimony that the IRS “treat[ed] the[] returns as having been filed” on September 4, 2009, the day the defendant handed them to Connors.

The Ninth Circuit’s opinion notes that the defendant’s opening appellate brief reiterates the position he argued unsuccessfully in the district court – that the evidence did not show the subject returns were “filed” within the meaning of the applicable IRS statutes and regulations when he handed them to Agent Connors. The court of appeals noted, however, that the government’s response brief contained an “unusual twist”:

Reversing its prior position, the government now concedes that “there is a single definition of ‘filing’ that applies in both the civil and criminal context,” and that “the record does not support that the returns here were filed.” The government agrees with Boitano that Connors’s testimony that the returns were “filed” when Boitano handed them to him was incorrect. The government’s new argument is that filing is not an element of the charged offense because, “by its own terms, [§] 7206(1) does not require the government to prove ‘filing’ as defined by the IRS regulations to establish a violation of the statute.” The government reasons, “under a correct understanding of Section 7206(1), [Boitano’s] actions violated the statute by his completing a return, signing it, and taking actions by which he gave up any right of self-correction.” (Emphasis added.) Notably, the government concedes that if it had to prove the returns were filed within the meaning of the IRS regulations, then Boitano’s convictions must be reversed.

The Ninth Circuit quickly dispensed with the government’s new argument, concluding that binding precedent supported the defendant’s position:

Our court has long held that “filing” is an element of a § 7206(1) violation. In United States v. Hanson, we affirmed a conviction for making false statements in violation of § 7206(1) where the defendant “fil[ed] false IRS forms that reported payments [defendant] had never made and claimed a tax refund [defendant] was not due.” 2 F.3d 942, 944 (9th Cir. 1993). In so ruling, we stated that “[t]o prove a violation of § 7206(1), making false statements, the government must prove that the defendant (1) filed a return, statement, or other document that was false as to a material matter . . . .” Id. at 945.

The government cites numerous reasons for its new contention that § 7206(1) does not require filing, but it offers no intervening authority for its argument that it should only be required to show that Boitano gave up the right of selfcorrection. It argues: (1) the statute, by its own terms, does not require proof of filing; (2) the Supreme Court has not identified filing as an element of the offense; (3) interpreting the statute not to require filing makes sense because the statute is not limited in its scope to tax returns; (4) the statute’s legislative history does not establish that filing is an element of the offense; and (5) filing a document is one way, but not the only way, to satisfy the statute. We are bound, however, by Hanson’s plain and explicit identification of “filing” as an element of a § 7206(1) offense. Id. (“To prove a violation of § 7206(1) . . . the government must prove that the defendant (1) filed a return. . . .”); see also United States v. Tucker, 133 F.3d 1208, 1218 (9th Cir. 1998).

The Ninth Circuit concluded that because binding circuit precedent establishes that “filing” is an element of a conviction under § 7206(1), and the government conceded on appeal that the record does not support that the returns here were filed, the defendant’s felony convictions must be reversed.