Macron and the Potential Future of Tax Leaks

By: Diane Ring

The French election for president—an event worthy of note in its own right (particularly on the heels of the Brexit vote)—generated a political, international relations, security and media firestorm due to a late-breaking data leak and hack. On Friday, the campaign of French centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron announced that it had been the subject of a major computer hack. At least 9GB of emails and personal and business documents from Macron’s campaign were posted to a document sharing site called Pastebin. Initial reports contended that the hack and leak were an effort to aid Macron’s far-right opponent Marine Le Pen, and may have been undertaken with Russian assistance. While Macron won the election, the potential fallout out from these leaks may have only just begun.

There’s an important tax dimension to the story, which may have been slightly overshadowed by Friday’s massive data dump. Two days before, on Wednesday, Le Pen hinted during a debate at possibility that Macron might have an offshore account in the Bahamas. Apparently, two hours before the debate, documents were anonymously posted on an internet forum that purported to include Macron’s signature and to show that he had a Bahamas bank account. During the debate, Macron responded that the claim was false and constituted “defamation.” On Thursday, Macron and his campaign outlined the spread of this offshore-account assertion on various sites and contended some were connected to “Russian interests.” On Friday, Macron lodged a complaint with the French prosecutor’s office regarding offshore account allegations made online.

Though the Friday hack and data dump have dominated the spotlight, the alleged tax leak is in fact part of the bigger and quite troubling picture of leaks in the modern cyber environment . . .

Continue reading “Macron and the Potential Future of Tax Leaks”

The Surly Subgroup Turns One!

Time flies when you’re having fun, I guess. Today is the one-year blogiversary of the Surly Subgroup. What started off as a group-blogging experiment hatched at last year’s Critical Tax Conference at Tulane Law School has provided quite a bit of entertainment for Surly bloggers and our guest bloggers, and hopefully for our readers as well.

It’s obviously been a big year on tax and other fronts. Since our inception, we’ve published 206 blog posts on a variety of topics. And we’ve drawn readers from 140 different countries.

Surly regulars and guest bloggers have covered various tax-related issues surrounding politics and the 2016 election—including disclosure of presidential tax returns, the Emoluments Clause, the Trump Foundation, and the Clinton Foundation. We’ve written about churches, 501(c)(3)s and the IRS treatment of non-profits. We’ve discussed the tax reform proposals of the 2016 presidential candidates and the #DBCFT. We’ve written several administrative law posts about Treasury Regulations and rulemaking.

Politics aside we’ve also covered other important issues in tax policy—including taxation and poverty, healthcare, tax policy and disabilities, tax compliance, and tax aspects of the Puerto Rico fiscal crisis. We’ve discussed several issues in international and cross-border taxes, touching on the EU state aid debate, the CCCTB, taxation and migration, the Panama Papers, tax leaks more generally, and tax evasion in China.

We hosted our first ever online Mini-Symposium on Tax Enforcement and Administration, which featured posts by ten different authors on a variety of tax administration topics. The Mini-Symposium was spearheaded by Leandra Lederman. Leandra had organized and moderated a discussion group on “The Future of Tax Administration and Enforcement” at the 2017 AALS Annual Meeting, and many of the discussion group participants contributed to the online symposium. We hope to organize future online symposia on other topics.

We’ve blogged about various conferences, workshops, and papers, both tax related and not-so-much tax related. We’ve also had lots of fun writing about taxes in popular culture – Surly bloggers and guest bloggers have written about the tax aspects of Pokémon Go, tax fiction, music-related tax issues (Jazz Fest! Prince! “Taxman”!), soccer players, dogs, Harry Potter fan fiction, Star Trek, and John Oliver. Surly bloggers even recorded a few tax podcasts!

In short, it’s been a busy year, and we’ve had a lot of fun with the Surly platform. We hope you have as well. Going forward, we’re going to keep the blog posts coming. We also hope to draw more regular and guest bloggers and to organize other online symposia.

Thanks for reading!

Panama Papers: The One-Year Anniversary

By: Diane Ring

This month marks the one-year anniversary of the Panama Papers leak. In April 2016, the ICIJ announced the leak and a few weeks later (May 9, 2016) released a database that included a subset of the leaked data. The leak itself comprised over 11 million records spanning 40 years from the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca. At its core, the leak revealed the true ownership of over 200,000 offshore entities, thereby raising a host of tax and political questions regarding many of the entities’ owners.

So what has happened over the past year as a result of the leak? Continue reading “Panama Papers: The One-Year Anniversary”

The Games We Play

Shu-Yi Oei

I’ve been ever so slightly glum since my colleague Ann Lipton went and blogged about this game called the Unicorn Startup Simulator over at BLPB. The goal of the game is for your startup to have a billion dollar valuation by the end of the year while keeping your employees happy. You have to make a series of decisions juggling those two goals. Turns out that’s harder than one might imagine. Here is what keeps happening to me:

Screenshot 2017-04-10 23.18.32

So, I guess the message is “don’t quit your day job”?

Anyway, I was feeling grumpy about not having cool tax games to call our own but then I went hunting around and realized, WAIT, we do have tax games! Whether they’re cool or not is another story.

Here are a couple:

Continue reading “The Games We Play”

Chuck Berry, Cash, and Taxes

Copyright Missouri History Museum, Some Rights Reserved

By Sam Brunson

In the aftermath of Chuck Berry’s death on March 18, I learned that I’m way more familiar with his music than I had realized. I’ll confess that I never spent a lot of time thinking about Chuck Berry, but his songs (it turns out) were an accidental soundtrack to my growing up. My dad had two or three oldies stations programmed into the radio, and Berry’s music was ubiquitous on their playlists. And many songs I’m partial to have turned out to be his. (I’m thinking particularly of Nina Simone’s cover of “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man.”)

Still, I’m not a big enough fan to try to write about Berry on a tax blog. Or, rather, I wasn’t until last night, at the gym. As I listened to Sound Opinions, I learned that, like so many musicians, Berry had a run-in with the IRS. Continue reading “Chuck Berry, Cash, and Taxes”

Did Rachel Maddow Break the Law? #TrumpTaxReturns

By Sam Brunson

Last night, Rachel Maddow dropped a bombshell: reporter David Cay Johnston had a leaked copy of Donald Trump’s 2005 tax return, and he shared it on her show.

Okay, maybe it wasn’t entirely a bombshell; in our leakhappy environment, it was almost inevitable that we’d eventually see some of Trump’s returns. And this barely counts as a return: it’s just his Form 1040 from 2005 (that is, the first two pages of a return). When I grade voluntary presidential candidate tax disclosures, one year’s Form 1040 realistically gets you a D+; the 1040 says how much you ultimately paid in taxes, but very little more than that. (For example, you can see that Trump had itemized deductions of just over $17 million, but you can’t tell what itemized deductions he took. I mean, is it mortgage interest? state and local taxes? charitable contributions? some combination? Without the full return, we have no way of knowing.) Continue reading “Did Rachel Maddow Break the Law? #TrumpTaxReturns”

Death, Taxes, and a Beach Read

51bm1qlqlzl-_sy344_bo1204203200_By: Leandra Lederman

Back in December 2011, I received a targeted mailing. It was the postcard below, which I received at the office. Tfullsizerender-1hus far, I haven’t found a Maurer colleague or tax friend who received this mailing. Some marketer apparently did his or her homework and identified me as someone with an interest in both tax and chick lit! I don’t get to read novels very often anymore, but this looked like exactly the kind of book I would enjoy. I even acted on the sticker on the reverse of the postcard, which said “A book makes a great holiday gift!” “Death, Taxes, and a French Manicure” was a great start to the Christmas list request I had recently received.

I received the book for Christmas and got hooked on the series. I’ve gotten through Book 10 so far. They’re a lot of fun. It never occurred to me to blog about them, though, until I read the first page of “Death, Taxes, and Cheap Sunglasses” while on a plane, and saw a link with tax issues I frequently write about. The opening paragraph reads:

“I slid my gun into my purse, grabbed my briefcase, and headed out to my car. Yep, tax season was in full swing once again, honest people scrambling to round up their receipts, hoping for a refund or at least to break even. As a taxpayer myself, I felt for them. But as far as tax cheats were concerned, I had no sympathy. The most recent annual report indicated that American individuals and corporations had underpaid their taxes by $450 billion. Not exactly chump change. That’s where I came in.”

I had just presented my latest tax compliance article, “Does Enforcement Crowd Out Voluntary Tax Compliance?” and here were tax gap figures showing up in a novel! “Death, Taxes, and Cheap Sunglasses” was published in 2015, when the annual federal tax gap was in fact estimated at $450 billion. (The updated tax gap figures, released in April 2016, and which I blogged about previously, are available here.)  Continue reading “Death, Taxes, and a Beach Read”

When Leaks Drive Tax Law (a.k.a. our new paper!)

Shu-Yi Oei

Diane Ring and I just posted our new article, Leak-Driven Law, on SSRN. I had previously blogged about this paper as part of Leandra Lederman’s 2017 Mini-Symposium on Tax Enforcement and Administration, The abstract is here:

Over the past decade, a number of well-publicized data leaks have revealed the secret offshore holdings of high-net-worth individuals and multinational taxpayers, leading to a sea change in cross-border tax enforcement. Spurred by leaked data, tax authorities have prosecuted offshore tax cheats, attempted to recoup lost revenues, enacted new laws, and signed international agreements that promote “sunshine” and exchange of financial information between countries.

The conventional wisdom is that data leaks enable tax authorities to detect and punish offshore tax evasion more effectively, and that leaks are therefore socially beneficial from an economic welfare perspective. This Article argues, however, that the conventional wisdom is too simplistic. In certain circumstances, leak-driven lawmaking may in fact produce negative social welfare outcomes. Agenda-setting behaviors of leakers and media organizations, inefficiencies in data transmission, suboptimally designed legislation, and unanticipated behavioral responses by enforcement-elastic taxpayers are all factors that may reduce social welfare in the aftermath of a tax leak.

This Article examines the potential welfare outcomes of leak-driven lawmaking and identifies predictable drivers that may affect those outcomes. It provides suggestions and cautions for making tax law, after a leak, in order to best tap into the benefits of leaks while managing their pitfalls.

In this paper, we wanted to explore how leaks of taxpayer data in the offshore context have shaped international tax law and policy, both in the US and other countries. We especially were interested in the possibility that—while leaks might appear useful on the surface from a tax enforcement and informational standpoint—there are unexplored pitfalls and downsides to relying on leaks to direct lawmaking and policy priorities.

In the non-tax world, of course, leaks have suddenly become very salient, in terms of both their usefulness and their dangers. But (non-tax lurkers take note!) tax law has been dealing with leaks of taxpayer information and what they mean for tax enforcement for at least the past ten years. Of course, tax leaks have some distinctive characteristics that make them different from other types of leaks. For example, the tax leaks that are the subject of this paper are usually (though not invariably) leaks of private taxpayer data, rather than leaks about governments from government sources.

We do think that the framework we introduce in our paper for analyzing the upsides and downsides of leak-driven lawmaking can be applied to explore how non-tax leaks and reactions to them may be socially beneficial but could also lead to less than ideal results. In both tax and in other fields, the meta-issue is not just how governments and private actors can use leaked information to sanction bad behaviors, make decisions, or design laws. Rather, the issue is how the actions and responses of leakers, governments, journalists, international organizations and the public work together to create and promote certain outcomes. Once we understand the underlying dynamics, then we can consider how the outcomes they create should be evaluated, supported, or resisted.

If you’re working on leak-related scholarship in either tax or other fields, we’d love to chat.

Leak-Driven Lawmaking

Shu-Yi Oei
Hoffman F. Fuller Professor of Law, Tulane Law School

Over the past decade, a steady drip of tax leaks has begun to exert an extraordinary influence on how international tax laws and policies are made. The Panama Papers and Bahamas leaks are the most recent examples, but they are only the tip of the leaky iceberg. Other leaks include (in roughly chronological order) the UBS and LGT leaks; the Julius Baer leak; HSBC “SwissLeaks”; the British Havens leaks; and the LuxLeaks scandal.

These tax leaks have revealed the offshore financial holdings and tax evasion and avoidance practices of various taxpayers, financial institutions, and tax havens. In so doing, they have been valuable in correcting long-standing informational asymmetries between taxing authorities and taxpayers with respect to these activities. Spurred by leaked data, governments and taxing authorities around the world have gone about punishing taxpayers and their advisers, recouping revenues from offshore tax evasion, enacting new domestic laws, and signing multilateral agreements that create greater transparency and exchange of financial information between countries.

Thus, it is clear that leaked data has started to be a significant driver in how countries conduct cross-border tax enforcement and make international tax law and policy. But using leaks to direct and formulate tax policy responses comes with some potentially serious pitfalls.

In a new paper—coming soon to an SSRN near you[fn.1]Diane Ring and I explore the social welfare effects of leak-driven lawmaking. Our argument, very generally, is that while data leaks can be socially beneficial by virtue of the behavioral responses they trigger and the enforcement-related laws and policies generated in their wake, there are under-appreciated downside hazards and costs to relying on leaked data in deterring tax evasion and making tax policy.

Continue reading “Leak-Driven Lawmaking”

Cooking The Books Podcast on Trump’s Taxes

By: David J. Herzig

Today Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, David Cay Johnston, Phil Hackney, and I got together for a 30 minute podcast discussion regarding the recent NY Times follow-up article about Mr. Trump’s $916 million tax loss (“NOL”).

Here is link if you missed hyper-link above: http://share.sparemin.com/recording-5131

The topics ranged from the current tax reporting regarding Mr. Trump’s 1990s tax returns to the Trump Foundation to potential criminal sanctions against Mr. Trump.  It was fantastic to be a part of and I hope everyone listens.

Continue reading “Cooking The Books Podcast on Trump’s Taxes”