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.

More Tax Lessons from Reality Stars on What Not to Do, Plus Lionel Messi

We discussed last week the surprise when a highly visible reality star is charged with or convicted of tax evasion or other financial crimes (see last week’s post here about The Situation and referencing Richard Hatch). This week, stars of the Real Housewives of New Jersey Teresa and Giuseppe (Joe) Giudice were sentenced to 15 and 41 months’ imprisonment, respectively, for having pleaded guilty to conspiracy and bankruptcy fraud charges. Comments made by the federal judge at sentencing indicate that the Giudices were less than forthright in their pre-sentence submissions and that, perhaps more than anything, factored into Teresa receiving a jail sentence, rather than probation. Let these reality stars be a reminder to all defendants to be truthful with the court, including at sentencing, or risk the consequences.

The Giudices were named in a 39-count indictment that described a number of schemes that generally allowed them to live beyond their means for years, beginning in 2001. The schemes involved submitting false documents and making fraudulent statements to lenders, banks, and a bankruptcy court, and, in Joe’s case, failing to file tax returns. Anyone who watches this show and the franchise would agree that the stars’ means often (if not always) is a part of the storylines, though that is no excuse for criminal conduct.

Yesterday, documents and information provided by the Giudices prior to sentencing (required in every case and utilized to assess the defendant and assist in determining an appropriate sentence, including what amounts are appropriate to order in terms of restitution and criminal penalties) were allegedly false and incomplete. According to the government (as reported by ABC News here), Teresa failed to note as assets “several cars, ATVs, and [construction equipment], claimed no jewelry, and said her $3 million home is filled with just $25,000 worth of furniture” (though the couple holds a $1 million insurance policy for household furnishings). These alleged omissions did not please United States District Court Judge Esther Salas, who stated that, “it feels like things have been hidden.” As her further statements make clear, this obfuscation might have been the tipping point in ultimately ordering that Teresa be incarcerated:

For a moment, I thought about probation until I read the government’s report. What you did in the financial disclosure really sticks in my craw. It’s what the court has a problem with. It shows blatant disrespect for the court. I’ve seen a lot, but I’ve never seen the confusion and work that went into these financial documents. The conduct which you piece-mealed, these financial documents, which I needed for this case were harder to decipher than any I’ve encountered.

(As reported by UsMagazine here). In addition, Joe was required by his plea agreement to file accurate personal returns for the years 2000 through 2011, which he had not yet done, and to pay back taxes and penalties amounting to $240,000, which neither he nor his lawyer seemed to know if he had yet repaid.

These sentences also reflect the high degree of discretion a judge retains in fashioning an appropriate sentence because the sentences were ordered to be served consecutively. Teresa will be incarcerated first, beginning January 5, so that she may spend the holidays with her four young daughters. Joe’s period of incarceration will begin once Teresa is released (which, based upon good time credit and other factors, could be less than one year), so that one parent remains available to care for the children. It is likely that the Court intentionally staggered the sentences in this manner, with Teresa being incarcerated first, because Joe is not a U.S. citizen and faces the likelihood of deportation to Italy upon completing his prison sentence.

At least one other former star of the Real Housewives franchise has also recently found herself in criminal trouble. Dana Wilkey, who appeared on the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills and was best known for announcing the cost of whatever she was wearing, including a pair of $25,000 sunglasses, was arrested in June 2014 for wire fraud conspiracy and wire fraud. She allegedly paid $360,000 in kickbacks through her advertising agency for internet marketing work performed for Blue Shield of California to two named defendants, one of whom was a Blue Shield employee who assisted in having the contract awarded to Ms. Wilkey’s agency and thereafter also concealed the inflated invoices submitted by Ms. Wilkey for payment. Ms. Wilkey has pleaded not guilty.

In celebrity tax evasion news abroad, BBC News is reporting today that Lionel Messi will face tax evasion charges in Spain. Mr. Messi is widely considered the world’s best soccer player and, now, the highest paid, following a $50 million deal earlier this year with his Spanish club, FC Barcelona, and a reported $20 million in endorsement deals. Last year, Mr. Messi and his father Jorge Messi were accused of defrauding the Spanish tax authorities of $5.4 million by utilizing companies in Belize and Uruguay from 2007 through 2009 to conceal income earned in endorsement deals with Adidas, Pepsi-Cola, and others. In defense, Mr. Messi argued that his father controlled his finances to such a degree that he should not be held culpable for any tax fraud, and his father caused a “corrective payment” of over $6.2 million to be made to satisfy the unpaid tax with interest. The Spanish prosecutors thereafter recommended that the charges be dropped, reasoning that Mr. Messi was not involved in the decisions relating to his finances or fully aware of the implications of utilizing foreign entities as it related to his tax obligations in Spain. Today, the court rejected this prosecutors’ request, explaining that Mr. Messi can still be charged with tax fraud, even if he did not “have complete knowledge of all the accounting and business operations nor the exact quantity” but was only “aware of the designs to commit fraud and consent to them.”

TIGTA Releases Annual Report on IRS Compliance Trends

The Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) released its annual report on IRS compliance trends yesterday.  The key takeaway from the report is TIGTA’s finding that the total amount of revenue received and collected by the IRS increased for the third year running, despite the fact that the IRS had fewer employees and decreased funding levels.  However, the IRS conducted fewer examinations, and its Collection function continued to receive more delinquent accounts than it closed, the report concluded.

“Budget reductions contributed to a decrease in the number of examinations and an increase in the number of delinquent taxes being assigned to an inactive status at the Internal Revenue Service last year,” said J. Russell George, Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration.  “However, overall enforcement revenue increased in 2013, due, in part, to several large appeal case settlements.”

Here are the key findings of TIGTA’s report:

  • The Internal Revenue Service’s appropriated budget decreased 7.4 percent between FY2010 and FY2013, from $12.1 billion to $11.2 billion after sequestration.  The budget cuts resulted in reductions in the number of employees available to provide services to taxpayers and enforce the tax laws.  Specifically, the number of full-time equivalents dropped by nearly 9 percent, from 94,618 at the end of FY2010 to 86,310 at the end of FY2013, including a 4 percent reduction between FY2012 and FY2013.  The number of enforcement personnel decreased by more than 1,000 employees during FY2013.
  • Despite these challenges, total dollars received and collected (gross collections) increased for the third straight year to $2.9 trillion (a 13 percent increase) in FY2013.  Enforcement revenue collected also increased from $50.2 billion in FY2012 to $53.3 billion in FY2013, due, in part, to several large Appeals case settlements.  Tax return filings continued to increase as did gross accounts receivable, which increased to $400 billion.
  • TIGTA found that the FY2013 Collection function activities showed mixed results. The amount collected on delinquent accounts by both the Automated Collection System and Field Collection decreased.  The Collection function continued to receive more delinquent accounts than it closed, although the number of delinquent accounts in the Collection queue decreased, due in part to the shelving of millions of accounts that were not resolved.  Fewer Notices of Federal Tax Lien were filed, fewer levies were issued, and fewer seizures were made.  Meanwhile, taxpayers’ use of payment options such as offers in compromise increased.

TIGTA’s report found that IRS Examination function conducted 6 percent fewer examinations in FY2013 than in FY2012.  The decline in examinations occurred across all tax return types, including individual, corporation, S corporation, and partnership. In particular:

  • Individual Income Tax Return Examinations – The number of individual income tax return examinations decreased for the third straight year.  The IRS examined 1,404,931 (one of every 104) tax returns in FY2013.  This is approximately 11 percent fewer examinations than the 1,581,394 reported in FY2010 (one of every 90). During FY2013, 81 percent of the examinations of individuals were performed by correspondence.  One of every 541 individual income tax returns filed received a face-to-face examination, which is a 4 percent decrease compared with FY 2012, when one of every 522 individual returns received a face-to-face examination.
  • Corporate Income Tax Return Examinations – Fewer corporate tax returns were examined during FY2013 than any of the past five years.  The number of examinations decreased in FY2013 to a five-year low of 27,480 (one of every 70 returns filed). Also in FY2013, there were fewer corporate tax filings than in any of the last five years (1,912,105).  Over the past five years, the number of corporate tax returns examined with assets of less than $10 million decreased 4 percent, from 18,298 in FY2009 to 17,604 in FY2013.  These examinations decreased by 17 percent in the past year alone, from the five-year high in FY2012 of 21,164. As examinations of these returns have reached lows, filings have also dropped over the past five years.  Corporate tax return filings with assets of less than $10 million have decreased nearly 14 percent since FY2009, with a 2 percent decrease since FY2012.
  • S Corporation Tax Return Examinations – The number of S corporation examinations decreased 14 percent from the 21,658 examinations conducted in FY2012.  However, the number of S corporation examinations in FY2013 (18,670) was nearly 7 percent more than the number examined in FY2009 (17,455).  In FY2012, one of every 206 S corporation returns filed were examined, compared with one of every 240 filed in FY 2013. S corporation return filings increased for the fifth straight year, reaching 4.5 million in FY2013.
  • Partnership Return Examinations – The number of partnership returns examined decreased 11 percent to 14,870 in FY2013 after increasing to 16,691 in FY2012.  One of every 211 returns filed in FY2012 were examined.  This decreased to one of every 239 in FY2013. Partnership return filings increased to 3.6 million in FY2013.
  • Other Tax Type Examinations (fiduciary, employment, excise, estate, and gift taxes) – The overall number of examinations in these five classes was 87,836 for FY2013.  This is a 13 percent decrease in examinations from FY2012, when the number of examinations was more than 101,000.  Each of the five other tax type returns experienced decreases in the number of examinations between FY2012 and FY2013.  Excise return examinations decreased by 25 percent and estate return examinations decreased by 14 percent.  During FY2012, only one of the five other tax types (estate) experienced decreases in the number of examinations.  The return filings increased for all five of these other tax type returns in FY2013.  Estate return filings and excise return filings increased 123 percent and 52 percent, respectively.

Another important measure of audit productivity is the percentage of audited tax returns that result in recommended adjustments to the tax return.  The IRS associates a high percentage of audited tax returns that result in recommended adjustments with greater audit productivity, while audits that result in no change are considered unproductive.  The no-change rates for:

  • Revenue agent examinations of individual tax returns reached a five-year low in FY2011 (8 percent).  Since then, the no-change rate gradually increased to 10 percent in FY2013.
  • Tax compliance officer examinations of individual tax returns continued to remain at either 9 or 10 percent between FY2009 and FY2013.
  • Revenue agent examinations of corporate tax returns increased to 29 percent during FY2013.
  • Revenue agent examinations of partnership returns increased during FY 2013 to 47 percent.  The no-change rate increased in FY2010 (44 percent) and FY2011 (48 percent) and decreased in FY2012 to 44 percent.
  • Revenue agent examinations of S corporations continue to decrease from 39 percent in FY2011 to 33 percent in FY2012 and 31 percent in FY2013.

The conclusion to TIGTA’s report is as follows:

The IRS faced many challenges during FY 2013, including implementing provisions related to new tax legislation and operating with fewer resources and employees.  Several indicators showed the negative effect of these challenges, including a continued increase in accounts receivable, an increase in the number of cases that might never be worked, and a decrease in the overall number of examinations of tax returns.  While some indicators are positive, including increases in gross collections, enforcement revenue, and dollar yield per hour on examinations of corporations, the negative trends continue to be cause for concern, especially given that diminished enforcement could also affect voluntary compliance over time.

Lessons from The Situation: Pay your Taxes and Do Not Alter your Accounting Records

Reality stars being charged with tax evasion is always surprising, because not only does the whole television audience see you making money, but the government does, too. The first notable instance was the first winner of the CBS reality show Survivor, Richard Hatch, who was accused of not paying taxes on his million dollar prize and was later found guilty of filing a false tax return (among other crimes) for the year he won the competition.

Another reality star, Michael Sorrentino (aka “The Situation”), formerly of MTV’s Jersey Shore, now finds himself in a similar situation. Yesterday, Mr. Sorrentino and his brother, Marc Sorrentino, were indicted by a federal grand jury in New Jersey for filing false tax returns for 2010 and 2012, as well as conspiracy to defraud the United States. “The Situation” was also charged with failure to file a tax return for 2011. The Sorrentinos allegedly failed to report over $8.9 million earned through promotional and other activities, including publishing a comic book (featuring The Situation as a superhero, of course), owning a vodka company, and endorsing products such as vitamins and sunglasses. (See Indictment here). The Situation also allegedly improperly claimed deductions for business expenses that were really for personal use, including “personal grooming expenses.” U.S. Attorney Paul J. Fishman released this statement yesterday:

According to the indictment, Michael and Marc Sorrentino filed false tax returns that incorrectly reported millions made from promotions and appearances. The brothers allegedly also claimed costly clothes and cars as business expenses and funneled company money into personal accounts. The law is absolutely clear: telling the truth to the IRS is not optional.

(See Press Release here). Telling the truth to your accountant is not optional, either. According to the Indictment, the Sorrentino brothers allegedly provided their (unnamed) accounting firm with false information. In addition, the Indictment alleges that after the accounting firm received a grand jury subpoena for its QuickBooks software that contained the Sorrentinos’ books and records for 2012, entries in the software were “altered” whereby certain taxable payments were “reclassified” as non-taxable payments. It is not clear from the Indictment who directed that those changes be made, but the IRS obviously discovered the “reclassifications” during the criminal investigation, and the act of altering corporate book and records to cover up a crime almost certainly influenced the decision to prosecute in this case.