Monday, October 28, 2013

Lifetime Achievement Award for whistleblower work given to Mary Louise Cohen

The Taxpayers Against Fraud Education Fund honored Phillips & Cohen partner Mary Louise Cohen with the Lifetime Achievement Award for her work on whistleblower cases.

Cohen is responsible for “bringing some of the first and largest (False Claims Act) cases ever won or settled,” said TAFEF in an announcement Oct. 24, including a $302 million settlement against Quest Diagnostics. TAFEF called Cohen a “pioneer of False Claims Act litigation” who brought some of the first “qui tam” (whistleblower) cases and some of the largest ever won or settled.

Phillips & Cohen’s cases have helped the government recover over $11 billion in civil settlements and related criminal fines, making it the most successful law firm representing whistleblowers in the U.S.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Grassley urges IRS commissioner-nominee to change anti-whistleblower culture

Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA), a long-time champion of whistleblowers and the creator of the IRS whistleblower program, has sent a letter to IRS commissioner nominee, John Koskinen, expressing hope that he will change the anti-whistleblower culture at the IRS.

Grassley is concerned that the IRS whistleblower program is being underutilized and harmed due to the dearth of whistleblower rewards and IRS agents’ reluctance to “fully utilize the whistleblower’s knowledge and expertise to identify and expose tax cheats.”

Whistleblowers often put their careers in jeopardy by coming forward with valuable information. Those who have filed whistleblower claims or are considering filing whistleblower claims have been discouraged by the lack of response from the IRS.

Grassley recommends changes to the IRS whistleblower program: Assurances that whistleblowers will be valued and treated fairly, regular use of the awards programs, encouraging rather than discouraging whistleblowers to come forward, and showing whistleblowers that it is worth risking their careers to report those who violate or skirt tax laws and regulations.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Investment officer goes to prison for creative, fraudulent tax shelter

A Virginia investment firm officer who thought he found a creative way to defraud the IRS was sentenced to 54 months in prison yesterday for implementing a fraudulent tax shelter for KPMG clients.
Michael Parker, chief operating officer of TransCapital Corp., promoted and implemented from 1998 through 2006 a tax shelter called the Sale Leaseback of Tenants Improvements Strategy (SLOTS), ultimately helping client corporationss to deduct more than $240 million from their corporate income tax returns.

Parker, working with others, formed single purpose entities to buy leasehold improvements from the SLOTS clients. These leasehold improvements were appraised in such a way to reflect a higher value on the clients’ books than the sale price.

Parker admitted that he conspired to defraud the IRS and withheld information about the transactions from his clients. At least eight SLOTS shelters were transacted for corporate clients. The Kroger Co. was identified as having done the largest transaction, claiming over $178 million in deductions.
Parker said the SLOTS transactions were simply devices to conceal financing deals.  Schemes to manufacture deductions continue to be a high-risk-shelter strategy.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

IRS needs to do more to make tax whistleblower program successful

Statistics in the Internal Revenue Service’s annual report to Congress on the IRS whistleblower program for fiscal year 2012 reflect whistleblowers’ frustration with the IRS.

In FY 2012, only 332 whistleblowers submitted information about tax violations exceeding $2 million – the threshold for the reward program. That is down from a high of 472 in FY 2009. As Sen. Chuck Grassley(R-IA) noted, “. . . the delay in awards and the way the IRS treats whistleblowers might be contributing to the leveling off of whistleblower cases.”

Only five claims have been paid under the tax whistleblower program Congress created in 2006, the report said. The program promises whistleblowers rewards of 15 percent to 25 percent of what the IRS collects based on their information when recoveries exceed $2 million. A Phillips & Cohen client received one of the few tax whistleblower rewards made in FY2012 under the previous IRS whistleblower  program, which limited rewards to a maximum of $2 million.

By creating obstacles to whistleblower rewards and failing to embrace the whistleblower program, the IRS is missing out on an opportunity to narrow the $450 billion gap between what is owed in taxes every year, and what is actually paid.

It is ultimately the taxpayers and the federal treasury that will pay for this failure to foster a successful whistleblower program.  If the IRS would do more to give whistleblowers the confidence to come forward, rather than make it increasingly difficult to receive rewards or even information about their claims, then the IRS would make substantial recoveries.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Grassley calls for changes in proposed IRS whistleblower regs

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) is disappointed with the proposed regulations for the IRS whistleblower program, he told the Treasury Department and the Internal Revenue Service in a recent letter. He believes -- as do we -- that the new regulations fail to realize the full potential for recoveries under the whistleblower program.

Grassley said the  IRS whistleblower program should be designed to encourage whistleblowers to come forward and to mobilize their own resources, much like the successful False Claims Act.

Instead the proposed IRS regulations, if adopted, are likely to discourage whistleblowers. They narrow the definition of the kinds of recoveries that are eligible for reward, exclude certain kinds of recoveries altogether and  broadly define the limitation for “planners and initiators” of the fraud. The latter, Grassley fears, could be used to “arbitrarily reduce awards to whistleblowers.” The law is intended to reward whistleblowers; limiting the scope of eligible recoveries is at odds with that goal.

The proposed regulations do little to address one of the chief sources of complaints about the program: the lack of communication between the IRS and whistleblowers. Grassley also said “the IRS should establish regulations for utilizing its contract authority” so that the IRS can use whistleblowers and their counsels and resources to assist in the recovery of funds, much like the way the Justice Department does in False Claims Act cases.

In the early years of the False Claims Act, there were similar problems. But those were overcome, and it is now the federal government’s most successful anti-fraud program The IRS whistleblower program could follow a similar path if the agencies draw on the experience and advice of people like Grassley when they draft the final regulations. 

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Former IRS employee outs whistleblower

The arrest last week of former IRS employee Dennis Lerner stands out for a particular reason to The government said he had revealed the identity of an IRS whistleblower.

Such a breach of whistleblower confidentiality by a government employee is unprecedented.  As Special Agent Robert O’Malley of the Office of the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) said, “Any allegation of corruption, self-dealing, or inappropriate disclosure of confidential information is a potential violation of the public trust and could erode the public’s confidence in the American system of tax administration.”

Lerner was charged with breaching conflict of interest laws and illegally divulging privileged IRS information. 

He worked as an international examiner for the New York IRS office from 2010 to 2011, during which time he headed the audit of an international bank that was launched on the basis of whistleblower information regarding nearly $1 billion in unreported income.  Lerner left the IRS in the fall of 2011 and went to work for the same bank he had audited while at the IRS, which the New York Times reported was German Commerzbank.

While working for the bank, Lerner continued to unethically seek out information regarding the IRS investigation, and revealed the identity of the whistleblower to his new employer, violating IRS whistleblower confidentiality, according to the government.  

For more information on whistleblower protection and IRS whistleblower rules, see here

Thursday, September 13, 2012

IRS awards UBS whistleblower $104 million

The IRS awarded $104 million to UBS whistleblower Bradley Birkenfeld Tuesday.  In 2007 Birkenfeld played a key role in alerting the U.S. government to the ways the Swiss bank, UBS, was encouraging clients to evade taxes in the U.S.  Following Birkenfeld’s tip, UBS agreed to a $780 million settlement with the Department of Justice, and turned over information on some 5,000 Swiss accounts to the IRS. 

Largely as a result of Birkenfeld’s cooperation and the subsequent investigation of several Swiss banks, the IRS launched its first Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Program in 2009.  Over 33,000 Americans have since participated in the program and the IRS has recouped approximately $5 billion in back taxes and penalties.   

Such a substantial whistleblower reward recognizes the value of Birkenfeld’s contributions to the IRS investigation.  ErikaKelton, a whistleblower attorney at Phillips & Cohen LLP, noted the significance of the reward in a Bloomberg article.  Kelton said, “The government acknowledged that without him or someone in his position, offshore evasion at UBS would still likely be going on.” 

Kelton also noted that although the record of IRS whistleblower program has been discouraging for the past few years, Birkenfeld’s reward bodes well for the momentum of the program.  “This is a powerful statement that things are moving and whistleblowers are welcome and they’re open for business,” said Kelton.