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