Just as summer is in full swing, the VIRTEU Project is back with a close look at a less than sunny side of economic life — the role that professionals (read lawyers, accountants and auditors) can play in enabling economic crime. This coming Wednesday July 21, 2021 (starting at 10:15am ET) join us in a three-panel zoom symposium that investigates how and why professionals may play this enabling role, and what responses and solutions we might consider. We will look carefully at real life case studies and talk with experts from various sectors as we explore this ongoing issue.
This March 12th discussion will examine corruption broadly understood to encompass not only the most direct forms of corruption (e.g. bribes) but more indirect forms (including implicit deals with officials), on to questions of undue influence, conflict of interest and the power of lobbying. Attention will be given to not only government actors, but also structural and institutional features that impact corruption and avoidance of taxation, including the role of large corporations, wealth, and power bases. For more information on the Roundtable, see below. To join us for the discussion, please register here.
We do not yet live in a world in which taxpayer compliance can simply be assumed. Instead, we must rely on the interplay of reporting requirements, internal and external auditing, and ultimately whistleblowing, to help ensure compliance with the tax system. How do they fit together? What can we expect from reporting and auditing? When do they breakdown, and why? How does whistleblowing–both the actual cases and the “threat” of whistleblowing–shape law, taxpayer behavior, and society’s understanding of compliance. And when does this tax noncompliance intersect with government corruption and fraud? What recommendations and options might we consider for the future?
The 3rd Roundtable, on “Whistleblowing, Reporting and Auditing in the area of taxation,” will be held Friday February 26, 2021 at 5:30-7:00pm GMT (12:30-2:00pm EST). For more information on the panel, see below. To join us, visit the registration link here.
These three frames for regulating (business) behavior are regularly examined and debated in the corporate and regulatory literature, but their application to the tax system remains under explored. If you are interested in thinking more about the tax side, join us this Friday February 12, 2021 at 5:30-7pm GMT (12:30-2:00pm EST). For more information on the panel, see below. To join, visit the registration link here.
It is no surprise to those working in the tax field, whether in government, private practice, academia or the nonprofit sector, that not all taxpayer mistakes are innocent. Some taxpayers affirmatively engage in fraud, and sometimes that fraud is wrapped up with corruption. The high profile spate of tax leaks beginning in 2008 helped put a more public face on many aspects of an old problem.
As part of an effort to better respond to tax crimes and corruption, the EU has funded an interdisciplinary and comparative research legal research project — VIRTEU [Vat fraud: Interdisciplinary Research on Tax crimes in the European Union]. This project is aimed at exploring connections between tax fraud and corruption. Focused in part on VAT fraud, the relevant issues and the kinds of questions that must be asked are universal across the tax system.
VIRTEU, for which I am a special advisor, is hosting a Roundtable Discussion Series this spring that brings together experts from academic institutions, nongovernmental organizations, and the private sector to engage in topical discussions around the general problem of tax fraud and corruption. Along with the the VIRTEU project’s Principal Investigator Dr. Costantino Grasso and Co-Investigator Dr. Lorenzo Pasculli, I will be organizing and hosting the series, which is also sponsored by Boston College Law School, Coventry University Research Centre on Financial and Corporate Integrity, and OLAF (the European Anti-Fraud Office).
Nick, who’s been a Superman fan since childhood, got me the Oct. 1961 issue of the Superman comic for Christmas. It’s got a story in it billed as “Superman Owes a Billion Dollars” in taxes! Here’s the splash panel:
The basic premise is that a new Revenue Agent “at the Internal Revenue Bureau in Metropolis,” Rupert Brand,* discovers “no record that Superman has ever paid taxes!” (In case you’re wondering, nope, the IRS was not called the “Internal Revenue Bureau” back then. In 1953, it changed its name from the “Bureau of Internal Revenue” to the “Internal Revenue Service.” Perhaps a clue that not to rely on any of the tax statements in the story!)
Brand figures out the quickest way to reach Superman about this apparent delinquency, and explains that even the President of the United States pays taxes (cf.these blog posts), and so must Superman!
Why does Superman owe tax? Well, the story explains that “each year, Superman captures countless criminals, collecting a fortune in reward money!” And not just that, “whenever he digs up buried treasure” [treasure trove, anyone?] “or squeezes coal into diamonds, he earns more untold millions! All that wealth is income!”
For the last several months, I’ve been meeting a guitarist and sometimes other musicians at a Chicago park to play outdoor socially-distanced jazz. This Sunday, driving home, my wife asked me if we knew what Trump had paid in taxes. “Of course not,” I confidently responded. “It looks like we do now,” she said.
And with that, my work goals for this week changed. I’m sure everybody reading this has seen Sunday’s New York Times story (and probably also its follow-up from yesterday). Along with a ton of other tax people, I’ve been trying to make sense of and contextualize the story, both to myself and to the public. And I’ve largely been doing my thinking in real-time on Twitter.[fn1]
I thought that I’d assemble a lot of those Twitter threads here into one place. At most I’ll lightly edit them and I’ll link to the actual threads on Twitter, too. Because over there I included GIFs on almost every tweet and I think I outdid myself. The relevant content will be here, though. Continue reading “#TrumpTaxReturns”→
On Wednesday, I posted about how tax law played a central role in the college admissions scandal. As I’ve read through a little more of the affidavit, I decided to highlight two additional detail in this whole scandal, details that suggest that, for at least some of the participants, the tax consequences were very important.
Bruce Isackson and Facebook Stock
Bruce Isackson is the president of WP Investments, a real estate investment and development fund.[fn1] According to the affidavit, he used the fake athlete thing (soccer for the older daughter, rowing for the younger) to get two daughters into USC. He seems to have also paid for his younger daughter to get a better ACT score.
When I first read about the massive college admissions scam, I read it for roughly the same schadenfreude as everybody else. It was an interesting—and frankly, kind of pathetic—story of wealth and entitlement.
And then I read the affidavit supporting the criminal indictment. And I learned that, as much as this is a story of wealth and entitlement, it’s more than that: this is a story that revolves around taxes. And specifically, the abuse of a tax-exempt organization.
There seem to have been two main schemes to get participants’ kids into schools they wouldn’t have otherwise qualified for. The first involved cheating on entrance exams. The second involved bribing athletic directors and others to designate their kids as athletic recruits (often in sports the kids didn’t play), and , each of which had its own fee structure. But each scheme had something in common. The recipient of the payments was Key Worldwide Foundation. Continue reading “Key Worldwide Foundation and College Admissions Scams”→
I just finished drafting a paper that got me reading a lot about corporate fraud. I find fraud fascinating, so this was a bit of a treat! The new paper is Information Matters in Tax Enforcement, and it’s co-authored with my former student Joe Dugan (JD ’15), who is an attorney at DOJ (but did not write in his official capacity). We recently posted the article on SSRN (here), and will soon be looking for a home for it.
This article was prompted by Professor Wei Cui’s publication of Taxation Without Information: The Institutional Foundations of Modern Tax Collection, 20 U. Pa. J. Bus. L. 93 (2018). Cui sets forth the contrarian thesis that “modern governments can practice ‘taxation without information.’” His argument rests on two premises: (1) “giving governments effective access to taxpayer information through third parties does not explain the success of modern tax administration”; and (2) modern tax administration succeeds because business firms are pro-social, fostering compliance. Professor Daniel Hemel favorably reviewed Cui’s article on TaxProf blog.
Cui particularly takes issue with Henrik J. Kleven et al., Why Can Modern Governments Tax So Much? An Agency Model of Firms as Fiscal Intermediaries, 83 Economica 219 (2016), and Dina Pomeranz, No Taxation Without Information: Deterrence and Self-Enforcement in the Value Added Tax, 105 Am. Econ. Rev. 2539 (2015), both of which show the importance of third-party information reporting to tax enforcement. Cui’s article also criticizes Leandra Lederman, Reducing Information Gaps to Reduce the Tax Gap: When Is Information Reporting Warranted?, 78 Fordham L. Rev. 1733 (2010), which argued that information reporting is useful but not a panacea, and set forth six factors to evaluate the likely effectiveness of proposed information-reporting requirements.
Information Matters in Tax Enforcement takes on both of Cui’s arguments, as well as his subsidiary claim that the value-added tax (VAT) does not involve third-party reporting or reporting of individual transactions. Joe and I marshal a lot of evidence to show (1) third-party information reporting is generally very effective, and (2) firms are not inherently pro-social. Rather, the literature supports Kleven et al.’s argument that numerosity increases compliance. That is, where more people would have to collude, cheating is less likely due to the increased risk of defection. The fact that large firms generally are more tax compliant than small ones—a point Cui concedes—is consistent with that. Large firms are also subject to more regulation and oversight, which produce reliable information flows from the firm to the government. Joe and I also show that VATs do involve third-party reporting, with the modern trend being digital real-time reporting. Continue reading “New Paper on Tax Enforcement and Corporate Malfeasance”→
Like much of America, I watched a Fyre Festival documentary last week. I chose Hulu’s Fyre Fraud over Netflix’s Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened because I only had time for one, and Fire Fraud had an interview with Billy McFarland. (I’ve since heard great things about Netflix’s documentary, too, so I’ll probably watch it eventually.)
About nineteen and a half minutes into the documentary, we’re introduced to Ja Rule; we see him in an interview (with Wendy, apparently), who says to him, “So you spent two years in prison.”
He responds, “Yeah, I went in on my state charge for the gun charge, and they ran it concurrent with my tax stuff.”
There is an extensive set of literatures on tax compliance and evasion, often discussing the traditional economic model (the deterrence model) and/or behavioral theories such as social norms or tax morale. (For recent examples summarizing the theories, see this article by Kathleen Delaney Thomas, this one by Adam Thimmesch, or this one by yours truly.) There is also a separate accounting literature on fraud.
A key concept in this accounting literature is the “Fraud Triangle.” Yet despite the important role this theory plays within the accounting literature, the Fraud Triangle does not seem to have permeated the tax compliance literature, particularly the relevant legal literature.
For example, a search in “Secondary Materials” in Lexis for “‘fraud triangle’ w/50 tax!” turns up only one article, which is not a tax article but does cite a 2006 Tax Notes article authored by three CPAs. That article is James A. Tackett et al., “A Criminological Perspective of Tax Evasion” (paywalled). Yet, the Fraud Triangle should not be overlooked by scholars outside of accounting. It provides a powerful tool with which to conceptualize tax evasion. And, as discussed below, it helps provide a framework that both supports the deterrence model and allows other factors to coexist with deterrence.
The Fraud Triangle and the Fraud Diamond
The Fraud Triangle derives from three factors that criminologist Donald R. Cressey originally identified in a 1951 article in the Journal of Accountancy, “Why Do Trusted Persons Commit Fraud?: A Social-Psychological Study of Defalcators.” As discussed in his 1951 article and his 1953 book, “Other People’s Money: A Study in the Social Psychology of Embezzlement,” Cressey developed the factors that became the Fraud Triangle out of in-depth interviews with inmates who had been convicted of trust violations such as embezzlement. The three factors were labelled the “fraud triangle” by Steve Albrecht in the early 1990s. The elements of the Fraud Triangle, as discussed by Albrecht and others, are “perceived pressure” (usually financial), “perceived opportunity” to commit the fraud, and “rationalization” that the actions are justifiable or appropriate in the context of the situation. Albrecht and his coauthors of a 1979 KPMG study of convicted perpetrators of fraud “found that the decision to commit fraud is determined by the interaction of all three forces.” Continue reading “Tax Evasion and the Fraud Diamond”→
By now I’m sure you’ve read the New York Times story about the Trump gift tax evasion (or, if not that story—which is really, really long—at least a summary of it). There is a lot in there, and I suspect it’ll inspire more than a couple posts here, but I wanted to lead off with the statute of limitations.
Because let’s be real: I’ve always thought of the statute of limitations as being three years or, if you substantially understate your gross income, six years, unless you don’t file a return, in which case it runs forever until you file a return. Since most of the alleged fraud occurred in the 1990s or earlier, even the longer statute would be long passed.