Sunday, June 4, 2017

An Attorney, A CPA and Confidentiality

Do you have privacy protection if you tell me something as your CPA?

Your first thought might be yes, as your CPA might be the financial doppelganger to an attorney.

Then again, the answer might be no, as your CPA is not in fact an attorney – unless he/she is one of those rare birds that pairs-up a JD/CPA.

What got me thinking along these lines is the recent case US v Galloway.

Let’s travel to 2006. The IRS notifies Galloway that his 2003 return has been pulled for audit.

Audit starts.

In the middle of the audit Galloway’s CPA fires him. Why? Galloway did not pay his fees.

In 2008 Galloway gets sent to CID (Criminal Investigation Division), the part of the IRS that carries badges and guns.

As a heads-up: you NEVER want to deal with CID. It is one thing to argue with regular IRS, appeal penalties, stretch out a payment plan and so on. All that crowd wants is your money. CID investigates criminal conduct and they have a different goal: to put you in jail.

CID agents went to his business offices in Bakersfield, California. Upon their approach, a man in the office locked the door and called the police.

The CID agents also called the police and informed them there were two plain clothed and armed federal agents waiting for them to arrive.

The man stepped out of the building and provided them with the name of an attorney. The CID agents cleared out before the police arrived.

Nothing. Suspicious. There.

Since that visit went so well, CID next issued a summons for production of documents to the former CPA.

The CPA met with them, explained his relationship with Galloway and answered questions on how he prepared Galloway’s 2003 return. No great surprise: Galloway had forwarded QuickBooks information; the CPA asked a few questions, massaged a few numbers and produced a tax return. Happens in a thousand CPA offices every day.

There was a smidgeon of a problem, though.

Remember that the CPA had started the Galloway audit. As part of the audit, Galloway had provided him more paperwork, including additional and replacement QuickBooks runs. No big deal - usually.

What was unusual was that the new QuickBooks runs did not match-up to the earlier run the CPA used for the tax return.  

Galloway was charged with four counts of attempting to evade tax.

What to do?

Galloway sought to suppress all evidence obtained from his prior CPA. Why? Code Section 7609. The AICPA Code of Professional Conduct. Equitable authority. Applebee’s 2 for $20 menu.

You get it: kitchen sink. Galloway was throwing everything he had.

And this brings us to the Couch case from 1973. It was a Supreme Court case, so it is big-time precedent.

Couch owned a restaurant. At issue was unreported income. Cash. Pocket. Wink. You understand.

The IRS issued a subpoena to Couch’s accountant for books, records, bank statements, cancelled checks, deposit ticket copies, Sunday newspaper coupons and unexpired S&H green stamps.


Couch said: hold up. She had provided all that stuff to her accountant, so subpoenaing her accountant rather than her personally was nonetheless a violation of her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

I like her argument.

Ultimately – as Captain Picard would say – her argument was futile.

The Court was short and swift: Couch had no “legitimate expectation of privacy” upon providing information to a third-party with the goal of processing, straining and compressing that same information onto a government tax return.

Back to Galloway.

As you can see, he was taking a low-probability swing on a high-and-tight fastball.

He struck out. He could not make enough separation between his situation and Couch to avoid the precedent.

How do tax CPAs handle situations like Galloway in practice?

First of all: interaction with CID is rare. One can have a long career and never see the criminal side of the IRS.  

I have run into CID once or twice over 30+ years, most recently in connection with a fraudulent tax preparer in northern Kentucky. I also recently (enough) represented a client whose file was submitted by Exam to CID, but CID rejected the matter. The client was eye-rollingly negligent, but Exam hyperventilated (I thought then and now) and started seeing intent where only stupidity abounded.  

Anyway, here is what the CPA should recommend:

(1) Have the client hire an attorney
(2) Have the attorney hire the CPA

Under this arrangement, the CPA works for the attorney. He/she is protected under the attorney’s confidentiality privilege and cannot be compelled to testify unless the attorney releases him/her. The attorney will not – of course -  do any such thing.

This set-up is called a “Kovel,” by the way. Not surprisingly, it refers to a case by the same name.

What did Galloway’s accountant do wrong?

To be fair: nothing. Galloway was no longer a client. He was under no obligation to chase Galloway down.

Galloway really should have thought of that before stiffing the CPA for his fee.

Let’s however say Galloway was still a client. 

Folks, at the first hint or whiff of a criminal investigation I am (1) firing you or (2) you are providing me with a Kovel. Those are the only two options.

But it requires the accountant to recognize the danger signs.

Like a combined civil-criminal IRS examination, for example. Those are borderline unfair, as the IRS will pretend there is no criminal side to it. They introduce an unsettling miasma of entrapment, and they require the tax practitioner to realize that he/she is being played.

But that is not what happened with Galloway. CID went to his office, for goodness’ sake.

There was not a lot of subtlety there.

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