While having an attorney-client relationship with the benefit plan's promoter, the tax attorney wrote several opinions for prospective plan participants. These opinions pertained to a benefit plan's qualification under Internal Revenue Code section 419A. The tax lawyer later became a co-trustee of the plan, and during his tenure, he represented individual participants before the IRS concerning their tax problems. The plan's promoter was paying him throughout this time.
The tax attorney, who was not identified, never advised any of his clients of the conflicts and failed to obtain informed consents from any of the parties involved. The conflicts arose when the attorney agreed to represent multiple parties with opposing interests, to become the co-trustee of the plan and to receive compensation from the promoter. His obligations to other parties and his own self-interest limited his ability to represent each of his clients successfully. Because they were unaware of the conflicts, the clients were unable to seek alternative legal counsel.
The attorney has agreed to cooperate in the investigation, recognized his violations and will take additional continuing education ethics classes over the next two years. The IRS' OPR Director Karen L. Hawkins reminded attorneys that informing clients of conflicts of interest "is not a mere nicety." She continued, "Taxpayers who pay handsomely for tax advice and representation have a fundamental right to expect competent and diligent representation unfettered by a practitioner's responsibilities or obligations to someone else, or by the practitioner's self-interest."
Those who violate Circular 230 are subject to monetary penalties, censure, suspension and disbarment. Not just tax attorneys, but also enrolled agents, and CPAs are subject to the provisions of Circular 230, and therefore must avoid representing conflicting interests, unless appropriate conflict waivers are obtained.