March 2013 Archives

Prominent Tax Attorney Found Liable for Civil Tax Fraud Penalties Due to Finding of "Willful Blindness" to Underreporting of Income

March 20, 2013,

After being convicted of criminal tax fraud and serving 18 months in federal prison, a prominent former California tax attorney recently found himself again the subject of an IRS investigation into his alleged tax fraud. After a criminal tax case that culminated in Owen G. Fiore's guilty plea to tax evasion for the 1999 tax year, the IRS began to seek civil tax fraud penalties against Mr. Fiore for 1996 through 1999. Although Mr. Fiore conceded the tax disputes and the tax fraud charges for 1998 and 1999, he disputed his fraud liability for 1996 and 1997. While the Tax Court felt that it was unclear whether some of Mr. Fiore's actions weighed in favor of a finding of tax fraud, the court took a novel approach and ultimately held that Mr. Fiore had been "willfully blind" to his unreported income, and consequently found him liable for tax fraud for the 1996 and 1997 tax years.

Borrowing heavily from criminal law principles and discussing relevant appellate jurisprudence on the issue, the Tax Court applied the infrequently-used (at least in the area of civil tax fraud) willful blindness concept to Mr. Fiore's actions in the years in question. Specifically, the court stated that if the IRS could prove by clear and convincing evidence that Mr. Fiore was "aware of a high probability of unreported income or improper deductions" and "deliberately avoided steps to confirm this awareness," the standard for civil tax fraud would be met.

Ultimately, the Tax Court found that Mr. Fiore met both prongs of the test for willful blindness. Discussing Mr. Fiore's extensive work experience and education, the court found that such experience ensured that he was aware of the risk of underreporting his income through generally neglecting firm administration. Furthermore, the court discussed Mr. Fiore's significant use of funds during the period in question, and inferred from this that he consciously chose to not pay taxes in order to have more funds on hand. As to the second prong of the test, the court found that since Fiore had access to bank statements, bills and deposit slips for each taxable year, yet failed to check them when preparing his tax returns, this constituted "deliberate" avoidance of steps to confirm the underreporting of his income.

After this discussion of Mr. Fiore's tax return problems, the Tax Court concluded that the finding of willful blindness not only weighed in favor of tax fraud, but deserved "particular weight" in determining whether Mr. Fiore had committed tax fraud. When added to other factors such as Mr. Fiore's repeated failure to cooperate in his IRS tax audits, consistent underreporting of income, and haphazard recordkeeping (none of which conclusively weighed in favor of a finding of tax fraud on their own), the court found that the IRS had met the burden of proof to show that Mr. Fiore committed tax fraud in 1996 and 1997.

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Streamlined Foreign Bank Account Report (FBAR) Filing Compliance Procedure FAQs Issued by IRS for Non-Resident Taxpayers

March 6, 2013,

Last year the IRS announced an alternative to its Offshore Voluntary Compliance Program (OVDP) which was being made available to a limited group of non-resident individuals who failed to file Foreign Bank Account Reports (FBARs) on Form TDF 90-22.1. Our tax lawyers blogged about the Streamlined Program previously, taking a look at some of the pros and cons. Now the IRS has issued six Frequently Asked Questions about the Streamlined Compliance Program.

The most important FAQ is the first one. It makes clear that taxpayers who have a tax liability greater than $1,500 may apply to the Streamlined Program. It cautions that if a taxpayer exceeds the $1,500 threshold he or she may be classified as higher risk, and under FAQ No. 2 may be subject to higher penalties. It appears that the Streamlined Program may be a good bet for those individuals whose liability exceeds the threshold by a relatively small amount, perhaps $1,000 or $2,000, or even as much as $3,500. In the judgment of our tax attorneys going over that amount could be problematic, although as with tax problems in general and FBAR problems in particular, there is no substitute for a review of all of the facts. Simply put, a case by case determination is necessary before making the decision.

FAQ No. 3 provides that an individual who is already in the 2011 Offshore Voluntary Disclosure initiative (OVDI) or the earlier or later OVDP, who qualifies under the
Streamlined Procedure may move over from those programs into the Streamlined Procedure. Like everything else about the IRS' OVDP it is not possible to do so without risk. Specifically, the FAQs require one to opt-out of the OVDP by way of an irrevocable election. Only then will the examiner determine whether the taxpayer meets all of the qualifications of the Streamlined Procedure. So it is possible, especially in cases where the taxpayer is over the $1,500 per year threshold , to opt out, and wind up in a situation with the IRS asserting either a non-willful FBAR penalty, or even a willful FBAR penalty.

This is just another example of the IRS making FBAR compliance more difficult than necessary. There is no good reason why the IRS could simply combine the OVDP and the Streamlined Procedure into one coordinated system. A taxpayer wishing to come clean, and who believes she qualifies, could apply under the Streamlined Procedure, and then if the IRS disagreed that person would automatically be phased into the standard OVDP.

The reverse should also be the case. If a taxpayer is already in OVDP she should be able to get a determination as to whether she qualifies under the Streamlined Procedure without having to opt out, and possibly incur disastrous consequences.

As in all FBAR cases involving substantial dollars a knowledgeable tax lawyer should be consulted before anything is done.

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