After a late night watching baseball, I woke up this morning to news of Paul Manafort’s indictment.[fn1] And the 31-page indictment is filled with tax evasion. But, after laying out the fact of and ways in which Manafort evaded taxes, none of the counts seem to charge him with tax evasion. (I find that puzzling, though I’ve never been a litigator, much less involved in criminal tax cases, so I don’t really have any experience with which to judge the strangeness or not of not charging him with tax evasion.)
Yesterday my frequent co-author, Shu-Yi Oei, and I attended the ABA’s conference on “International Tax Enforcement and Controversy” in DC. The panels and discussion covered a range of interesting intersecting issues. These included: (1) the relationship among international organizations and bodies (such as the OECD, UN, World Bank, IMF and G20) in directing the shape of international tax law content and enforcement; (2) the place of developing countries in the evolving international tax system; (3) competing goals of finance ministers and tax ministers in various countries and the impact of that conflict on taxpayers; (4) the consequences of and responses to limited IRS resources; and (5) continuing benefits to enforcement from the Swiss Bank Program.
But probably the most significant theme that ran through the day’s discussion was the role of data, especially “big data”. . . .
Late last week, I ran across an article from the UK (thanks tax Twitter!) regarding a significant uptick in the number of vehicles being “clamped” or impounded in the UK due to a failure of their owners to pay a required road tax. The story wouldn’t have really captured my attention, but for its inclusion of a quote from the Driver and Vehicle License Agency’s National Wheelclamping Manager. In response to the release of information about increased noncompliance with the tax, the DVLA posted a warning on its website: “Our enforcement teams are out and about on the roads around the UK all year. Their vans are equipped with number plate recognition cameras so any vehicle that isn’t taxed is at risk of being clamped or impounded.” As someone who has spent a lot of time thinking about tax privacy lately, this was intriguing, so I did some digging.
Today, the Guardian is reporting that big-four accounting firm Deloitte suffered a hack back in March, 2017. The underlying attack may have originated in the fall of 2016 and may have allowed access to Deloitte systems for several months.
Deloitte itself is not unfamiliar with cybersecurity. As stated on its website, among the services that Deloitte offers clients is Cyber Risk. However, being a victim of a hack provides a new perspective. At this point, details are scarce on exactly which clients have been affected and what specific information may have been accessed, but it has been reported that “confidential emails and plans of some of its blue-chip clients” may have been compromised. This doesn’t sound good. But it is also no surprise.
Leaks and hacks can target a wide variety of data including business plans, mergers and acquisitions, scientific developments, business forecasts, individual identities, and government records. In recent years, tax-related information has proven especially attractive to leakers and hackers. As my co-author, Shu-Yi Oei and I explored in our recent article, Leak-Drive Law studying tax leaks that have occurred over the past 10 years, tax information can be valuable and their release by leakers can have powerful impacts. Moreover, as the tax community has embraced increased reporting and transparency to the government, the number of caches of well-organized data held by corporations, tax advisers and governments increases. Such caches may be magnets for those seeking to hack into it or leak it.
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 . . .
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.”)