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”

The Fyre Festival: Intro to Ja Rule’s Tax Troubles

By Sam Brunson

Photo by Eduardo Santos. CC BY 2.0

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.”

Now, Ja Rule’s tax troubles are probably the least interesting part of the documentary (and are over, iirc, as soon as he laughs after saying “tax stuff”). But I always find celebrity tax evasion interesting, so I thought I’d run it down a little. Continue reading “The Fyre Festival: Intro to Ja Rule’s Tax Troubles”

Tax Evasion and the Fraud Diamond

By: Leandra LedermanFraud Diamond image

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”

The Manafort Indictment

By Sam Brunson

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.)

Even without charges, though, there’s a fascinating romp through tax haven-aided tax evasion here. Continue reading “The Manafort Indictment”

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”

Every Old Scam is New Again

Michael Schvo's "Sheep Station." Photo by Inhabitat. Used under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 licence.
“Sheep Station.” Photo by Inhabitat. Used under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 licence.

When I was in law school, I took a class in state and local taxation from Professor Richard Pomp. Although I don’t spend much of my professional life thinking about state taxes, I clearly remember one of the stories he told us.

A fur store in Manhattan, he told us, would ship empty boxes (or boxes filled with rocks or magazines) to an empty lot in New Jersey for customers. Why? Because nonresident purchasers didn’t have to pay New York sales tax if the purchase was shipped out of state.[fn1]

The New York Times provides more detail on the scheme: the furrier in question, Ben Thylan Furs Corporation, would allow customers to take the furs home without paying sales tax (and, with an average fur price of $8,700, the evasion of an 8.25% sales tax saved customers an average of $717.75 per fur). It would then ship a box filled with something else (or with nothing) to create a false record to back the out-of-state purchase. And, in 1985, Ben Thylan was indicted.  Continue reading “Every Old Scam is New Again”

Alcatraz!

Early in the Alcatraz Cellhouse Audio Tour, my wife pointed out one of the pictures in D-Block: right next to people imprisoned for narcotics offenses, conspiracy to kidnap, and murder was Mickey Cohen, in Alcatraz for tax evasion. IMG_4029

Tax evasion! Alcatraz was a pretty harsh punishment for not paying your taxes. Unless, of course, you weren’t really sent to Alcatraz for not paying taxes, Which, of course, Cohen wasn’t. Neither was the inmate at the other side of the picture: Al Capone.   Continue reading “Alcatraz!”

The new Tax Gap Map: not much has changed

On Thursday, the IRS released new federal tax gap estimates, including a new Tax Gap Map (on page 3 here). It’s been a while; the previous estimates were calculated in December 2011, for tax year 2006. The principal new addition to the Tax Gap Map is that the estimate of the net tax gap (the gross tax gap reduced by enforced and late payments) is now broken down by type of tax. Also, the new release is different in that it doesn’t focus on a single tax year but rather averages for tax years 2008-2010.

The new estimates show an estimated gross tax gap of $458 billion—compared to $450 billion for 2006—and an overall “voluntary compliance rate” of 81.7% of tax liability, compared to 83.1% for 2006. At first glance, these figures suggest that voluntary compliance is declining and that the tax gap is growing. However, the IRS explains on page 2 of its report that these differences “are driven by improvements in the accuracy and comprehensiveness of the estimates through updates in methods and the inclusion of new tax gap components.” In particular, the IRS explained that “[h]ad the improvements not been made, the TY 2008–2010 tax gap estimates would have been slightly lower than the previous TY 2006 estimates.” (Emphasis added.) And although only about half of the decline from the estimated 83.1% rate to the new estimate of 81.7% is due to changes in methodology, the IRS explains the many factors that may change over time, the remaining 0.7% percentage point difference can’t be relied upon to indicate a real decline in voluntary compliance. Jim Alm & Jay Soled have argued that the tax gap may decline over time, for a variety of reasons, including the increasing use of electronic-payment mechanisms, which result in much more visible transactions than cash does, although they acknowledge that there are countervailing trends, as well, including the underfunding gap the IRS has been struggling with.

The single biggest contributor to the federal tax gap, in terms of dollars, according to the IRS’s estimates, remains underreporting by individuals of business income, at $125 billion (very similar to the $122 billion figure for 2006). Think cash transactions. It remains clear that third-party information reporting makes a huge difference. Page 5 of the IRS release shows that in a nice bar graph. While the IRS estimated that wages and salaries, which are subject to both information reporting and withholding, experienced the lowest net misreporting rate, at 1%, income subject to substantial information reporting experiences a fairly low 7% misreporting rate. By contrast, income subject to little or no information reporting has a 63% misreporting rate. That last category includes such things Continue reading “The new Tax Gap Map: not much has changed”