Jussie Smollett and the Illinois Film Tax Credit

By Sam Brunson

By Ben P L. CC BY-SA 2.0

On Tuesday, Joe Magats, first assistant state’s attorney for Cook County, announced that he was dropping the charges against actor Jussie Smollett. Instead of a trial and punishment, Smollett agreed to forfeit his $10,000 bond and do community service.

Cook County prosecutors say this is a relatively normal type of alternative prosecution, one that prosecutors have recommended for over 5,700 offenders. It allows prosecutors to use their resources to prosecute violent offenders.

Not surprisingly, there’s some outrage about this alternative prosecution, notably from Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and CPD Superintendent Eddie Johnson. But this is a tax blog, not a criminal justice blog, so questions about the justice (or not) of dropping Smollett’s prosecution are outside of our usual scope. Which is why I’m going to focus, instead, on Illinois Representative Michael McAuliffe and his terrible, horrible, no good, very bad bill. Continue reading “Jussie Smollett and the Illinois Film Tax Credit”

Lead us not into temptation

By Gaute Solheim, Senior Tax Advisor, Norwegian Tax Administration

(Mr. Solheim writes in his individual capacity and does not purport to represent the views of the Norwegian Tax Administration.)

The Norwegian Tax Administration (NTA) has succeeded in leading most of the taxpayers away from the temptation of tax evasion over the last two decades. Not all, but most. It was not by carefully guiding them down a narrow path. The NTA constructed a wide avenue built on large quantities of third-party information pushed into prepopulated tax filings. Norway tweaked details in the rules for the most used deductions, linking them to easy observable facts and standard rates instead of using actual cost. Feedback from audits were used to evaluate possible changes in rules, eliminating or reducing the temptations facing the taxpayer in the filing process.

After all this work, we still had a problem with taxpayers being formally non-compliant by not logging into the digital portal and clicking the button for submitting their prepopulated tax filing. The easy fix was to change the law. A taxpayer receiving the digital and prepopulated tax report would be deemed to accept it as his filing if he stayed passive. Presto, even more compliant taxpayers.

But, at least for internal use, the NTA retained the old division of taxpayers into those who want to comply and those who want to evade. The faithful and the sinners. What people want is hard to observe, and it is hard to design measures to influence what people want. The NTA kept it despite its actions being focused very much on making it irrelevant whether the taxpayer wanted this or that. Spending all my time auditing MNEs, I found it really hard to figure out the wants of a corporation. Continue reading “Lead us not into temptation”

More on the College Admissions Scandal

By Sam Brunson

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.

What’s interesting for purposes of this post is how he paid. Continue reading “More on the College Admissions Scandal”

Key Worldwide Foundation and College Admissions Scams

By Sam Brunson

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”

IU Tax Policy Colloquium: Williamson, Filer Voter: An Experiment Testing Voter Registration at Tax Time

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Left to right: Pamela Foohey, Leandra Lederman, Vanessa Williamson, David Gamage, Tim Riffle

By: Leandra Lederman

On February 28, Indiana University Maurer School of Law’s Tax Policy Colloquium, hosted this year by my colleague David Gamage, welcomed Vanessa Williamson from the Brookings Institution. Vanessa presented a report that is due to be released at the end of March on a “Filer Voter” experiment she conducted at Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) sites in Cleveland, Ohio and Dallas, Texas.

For those who may not be familiar with it, VITA is an IRS-run program that offers free tax return preparation (generally federal and state) for taxpayers who made $54,000 in income or less (for 2018) and meet certain other requirements. An IRS web page provides training materials and certification tests for volunteers. The IRS works with local groups in that it provides VITA grants to partner organizations. For example, in Bloomington, the VITA program is run by United Way of Monroe County.

Vanessa’s Filer Voter experiment involved offering some taxpayers who come to VITA sites for tax-return preparation the opportunity to register to vote. The experiment was structured as follows: Each VITA session was divided in half by time, and within each session, the first half or second half was randomly assigned the treatment of offering voter registration, and the other half of the session was the control. The study included collection of demographic information and consent forms from taxpayers in both the treatment and control groups. Continue reading “IU Tax Policy Colloquium: Williamson, Filer Voter: An Experiment Testing Voter Registration at Tax Time”

A Mission From God: Blues Brothers and Tax

By Sam Brunson

On February 1, Amazon Prime Video started streaming Blues Brothers. Now, in spite of its being one of the great movies of the 20th century, and having one of the greatest soundtracks ever, I hadn’t seen it in years, and definitely not since I moved to Chicago. So I decided to watch it, both because I love the movie and because I wanted to see its view of Chicago now that I know this city.

I remembered that the plot revolved around Jake and Elwood trying to raise $5,000 for the orphanage they grew up in or the orphanage will be closed, but I’d forgotten that the $5,000 was to pay the orphanage’s property tax assessment:

I’d also never watched a movie with Amazon’s X-Ray feature before. And X-Ray announced that the motivation for their mission from God is a factual error, because Illinois doesn’t tax church property.

Is that true? Continue reading “A Mission From God: Blues Brothers and Tax”

The Trump Foundation and the Private Foundation Termination Tax

By Ellen P. Aprill

Michael Cohen’s accusations against President Trump in his statement before the House Committee on Oversight and Reform yesterday include arranging for a straw bidder to purchase a portrait of President Trump at an auction, using Trump Foundation funds to repay the fake bidder, and keeping the art for himself.  As part of the New York Attorney General’s  stipulation agreement with The Trump Foundation, the foundation must sell two other Trump portraits it currently owns. 

This stipulation agreement with the New York Attorney General has saved the Trump Foundation from a burdensome penalty tax in connection with the involuntary termination.  As had been widely reported at the end of last year, the New York Attorney General announced on December 18 that its investigation had found “a shocking pattern of illegality involving the Trump Foundation – including unlawful coordination with the Trump presidential campaign, repeated and willful self-dealing, and much more.”  Under the stipulation agreement, the Trump Foundation will dissolve and submit to the court a list of non-for-profit organizations to receive the Foundation’s remaining assets.  The Attorney General and the state court will need to approve the organizations that receive the Trump Foundation’s funds. Continue reading “The Trump Foundation and the Private Foundation Termination Tax”

TIGTA’s Report on the Growing Gig Economy

By: Joseph C. Dugan, Trial Attorney, Department of Justice, Civil Division

On February 14, 2019, the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) released a Valentine’s Day treat: a comprehensive report following a TIGTA audit concerning self-employment tax compliance by taxpayers in the emerging “gig economy.”

As Forbes noted last year, over one-third of American workers participate in the gig economy, doing freelance or part-time work to supplement their regular incomes or stringing together a series of “gigs” to displace traditional employment.  Popular gig services include ride-sharing giants Uber and Lyft; arts-and-crafts hub Etsy; food delivery services GrubHub and Postmates; and domestic support networks Care.com and TaskRabbit.  Even Amazon.com, the second-largest retailer in the world and a traditional employer to many thousands of workers in Seattle and at Amazon distribution centers worldwide, has gotten in on the gig economy with its Amazon Flex service.  And for those interested in more professional work experience to pad their resumes, Fiverr connects businesses with freelance copywriters, marketers, and graphic designers.  The power of smartphones and social media, coupled with flat wage growth in recent years, makes the digital side hustle appealing and, for many households, necessary.

From a tax revenue perspective, the gig economy is great:  it is creating billions of dollars of additional wealth and helping to replenish government coffers that the so-called Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) has left a little emptier than usual.  From a tax compliance perspective, however, the gig economy presents new challenges.  Gig payers generally treat their workers as independent contractors, which means that the payers do not withhold income tax and do not pay the employer portion of FICA.  Instead, the contractor is required to remit quarterly estimated income tax payments to the IRS and to pay the regressive self-employment tax, which works out to 15.3% on the first $128,400 in net earnings during TY2018, and 2.9% to 3.8% on additional net earnings.  That self-employment tax applies even for low-income freelancers (i.e., it cannot be canceled out by the standard deduction or nonrefundable credits). Continue reading “TIGTA’s Report on the Growing Gig Economy”

#AcademyAwards2019, Swag Bags, and the IRS

By Sam Brunson

Every year, it seems like there’s something in the news about the Academy Awards swag bags (valued at $100,000 this year!) and taxes. And, since the Academy Awards are tonight, and since this is a tax blog, we might as well say something about the taxation of swag bags. And wouldn’t you know it: an article had a decently bad take on the taxation, giving me a hook for a tweetstorm, which I now reproduce here for your reading pleasure. Happy Academy Awards Day!

Continue reading “#AcademyAwards2019, Swag Bags, and the IRS”

Zelenak: IU Tax Policy Colloquium, “The NCAA and the IRS” & Tax Sitcom Night

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Left to right: Tim Riffle, David Gamage, Leandra Lederman, Larry Zelenak, Kevin Brown

By: Leandra Lederman

On February 14, the Indiana University Maurer School of Law’s Tax Policy Colloquium hosted Larry Zelenak from Duke University School of Law. Larry presented his fun new paper, co-authored with his colleague Rich Schmalbeck, “The NCAA and the IRS: Life at the Intersection of College Sports and the Federal Income Tax.” Larry really hit this one out of the park, with a crowd that was nearly standing-room-only! Larry also hosted a terrific Valentine’s evening event, “Tax Sitcom Night,” featuring three classic sitcom episodes in which couples encounter the federal income tax together. I’ll discuss each of these briefly in this blog post.

Larry and Rich’s paper argues that the IRS has not done as much as Congress to cut back on “unreasonably generous tax treatment” of college athletics. The paper covers four principal topics, which Larry explained was a combination of Rich’s work on two issues and Larry’s on the other two. The four topics are:

  • The possible application of the unrelated business income tax to college sports;
  • the federal income tax treatment of athletic scholarships;
  • the recently changed tax treatment of charitable deductions for most of the cost of season tickets to college ball games; and
  • the new 21% excise tax of IRC § 4960 on compensation in excess of $1 million on certain employees of tax-exempt organizations.

Each of these topics is interesting in its own right, and together they make a strong case that the IRS, and Congress at times, have tilted the playing field in favor of college athletics at the expense of protection of the federal fisc. I won’t give a play-by-play of these four issues here, as the paper does a great job of it and is available on SSRN, but I will mention a couple of highlights. Continue reading “Zelenak: IU Tax Policy Colloquium, “The NCAA and the IRS” & Tax Sitcom Night”

The IRS Did Not Violate the First Amendment in Declining to Exempt Organizations to Help Marijuana Dealers

By Ellen P. Aprill

Several commentators have called attention to the statement of the IRS in Revenue Procedure 2018-5, just reiterated in Rev. Proc. 2019-1, that it will not issue a determination letter recognizing exemption from income tax for “an organization whose purpose is directed to the improvement of business conditions of one or more lines of business relating to an activity involving controlled substances (within the meaning of schedule I and II of the Controlled Substances Act) which is prohibited by Federal law regardless of its legality under the law of the state in which such activity is conducted.”

These commentators suggest that this position could constitute impermissible viewpoint discrimination in violation of the First Amendment.  I do not view the IRS announcement in this way. Instead, I see it as an application of the long-standing principle denying exemption to entities with an illegal purpose or engage primarily in illegal activities.

The illegality doctrine has long prevented exemption under section 501(c)(3), the category that encompasses what we generally call charities. In the words of Section 101(c) of the ALI Draft Restatement of the Law of Charitable Nonprofit Organizations, “[a] purpose is not charitable if it is not lawful, its performance requires the commission of criminal or tortious activity, or it is otherwise contrary to fundamental public policy.”  Continue reading “The IRS Did Not Violate the First Amendment in Declining to Exempt Organizations to Help Marijuana Dealers”

Happy #TaxValentines Day!

TwitterHeartBy: Leandra Lederman

#TaxTwitter has been waxing poetic again this year. The #TaxValentines are not to be missed!

I’ll post just one (a new one) here; follow the links above to see more!

Roses are red
I give you my heart
And all of my tax problems
‘Til death do us part

#TaxValentines #IRC6013d3 #notsoinnocentspouse

Happy Valentine’s Day! ❤

Redacted History: Tax Privacy and the KKK

By Sam Brunson

Tax Lien by Nick Youngson, CC BY-SA 3.0, Alpha Stock Images, Original image at The Blue Diamond Gallery.

A year and a half ago, I learned that in the 1940s, the IRS revoked the Ku Klux Klan’s tax exemption and sued it for almost $700,000 in back taxes. Two years later, the IRS filed a tax lien against the KKK’s assets. While that may not have been the death blow to the 1920s iteration of the KKK, it was certainly part of the death blow.

I’ve since learned a lot more about the whole story, including how the KKK could claim exemption in the first place. I’ve read dozens of contemporary (and retrospective) newspaper articles about the revocation. Heck, I’ve read through a couple Stetson Kennedy archives. I’m dying to write an article about this piece of history.

There’s only one problem: I don’t know why the KKK lost its exemption.

Continue reading “Redacted History: Tax Privacy and the KKK”

New Paper on Tax Enforcement and Corporate Malfeasance

By: Leandra Lederman

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”

Michigan and the Parsonage Allowance

 

I’ve been following Gaylor v. Mnuchin, the parsonage allowance case, for years now. A couple months ago, I got to hear oral arguments the second time it went up to the Seventh Circuit. And I’ve been waiting eagerly since for the court to issue its decision.

As of 11:18 pm Central time on January 30, the court had not yet issued its opinion. But, in spite of the case being fully briefed and argued, one update to the case recently occurred: the state of Michigan changed its mind.   Continue reading “Michigan and the Parsonage Allowance”