Monday, May 27, 2013

Two Brothers, An Offshore Trust And An Ignored CPA

Here is the cast of characters for today’s discussion:

Brian             orthopedic surgeon and idiot tax savant
Mark             Brian’s brother and idiot business manager
Michael         long-suffering CPA
Lynn              the “other” CPA

All right, maybe I am showing some bias.

Let us continue.

The two brothers attend a seminar about using domestic and offshore trusts to delay taxes until the monies were brought back into the United States. In the meanwhile, one could tap into the money by using a credit card.

Sure. Sounds legit.

The brothers return and are excited about this new tax technique. They ask Michael’s advice. Michael tells them that the seminar promoter was “a person to avoid” and to consult an independent tax attorney. 

Brian blew off Michael. Brian signed up for the offshore trust. He may have received a toaster with his new account.

Michael – who does the accounting - sees a $15,000 check to the promoter. He writes Brian:

I am writing to you because I am concerned for you and the risks you may inadvertently be taking.
It seems to me that the promoters are relying on an elaborate chain of complex entities to conceal taxable income. I am especially suspicious when I learned that they will provide you with a VISA card to access the money.
I am asking that you consider the worst case scenario in which the IRS takes the position that you are committing tax evasion. They have the power to assess huge penalties and interest, to prosecute you, to ruin your career, and seize your property. Is the risk worth it?”

Michael talks with Mark. He believes that the brothers have finally listened to his advice.

Meanwhile, the brothers did not listen to anything. They set up a series of interlocking companies and hired Lynn to prepare taxes for those companies. Lynn is associated with the promoters of this tax scheme.

  • In year one the brothers transfer $107,388 offshore and deduct it as management fees 
  • In year two they transfer and deduct $199,000 
  • In year three they transfer and deduct $175,000

The IRS swoops in on the trust promoters. They take Lynn’s computer. Lynn calls Mark, explains all that, and recommends that they see a tax attorney. Maybe they should amend the tax returns.  Mark, after his many minutes of tax education, training and experience, told Lynn that he was not amending anything.

It gets better.

The promoter contacts the brothers and says that they have a NEW AND IMPROVED program that will be bulletproof against the IRS. The brothers sign on immediately.

The brothers receive their sign soon thereafter. 

  • In year four they transfer and deduct $650,000

Michael is preparing this tax return. He calls Mark and asks about the “management fee.” Michael has Mark write him a letter that all was on the up-and-up.

  • In year five they transfer and deduct $460,000

Michael is not preparing this tax return. He has had enough, and he has a career to protect. He wants a letter from an attorney that the transactions are above board.

Mark fires Michael.

And, in another surprise, daytime was followed by darkness.

A year later, Michael (the hero of our story) sends the brothers a press release about the “dirty dozen tax scams.” Sure enough, theirs is on the list. There is still time to send back the sign.

  • In year six they transfer and deduct $180,000

In addition, Brian taps the offshore account for $270,000 for the purchase of a new home.

A couple of years later Michael receives a subpoena from the IRS for records pertaining to Brian and his company. This is when all that communication back-and-forth with Mark and Brian may have taken its toll, as Brian was virtually giving the IRS a roadmap.

The brothers, perhaps whiffing that they may have missed a key lecture in their vast tax education, decided to amend Brian's personal returns, adding most of the so-called management fees back to his income. Brian sends a big check to the government.

This case goes to Court. This is not a regular tax case. No sir, this is a fraud case. Someone is going to jail.

There was an eleven-day trial. The brothers were found guilty on all counts.

There was something interesting in here during interrogatories. The IRS never discussed the amended returns when they were presenting their fraud case. The brothers objected, but the Court sustained the government. The brothers introduced the amended returns when it was their turn.

The brothers had a point. The government was not out ALL the money, because Brian had paid a chunk of it with the amended returns. Why then did the Court sustain the government? Here is the Court:

As an initial matter, we note that the amended returns were submitted years after the false returns had been filed and months after[Michael] warned [the brothers] that their records had been subpoenaed. We have previously said that ‘there is no doubt that self-serving exculpatory acts performed substantially after a defendant’s wrongdoing is discovered are of minimal probative value as to his state of mind at the time of the alleged crime.”

Wow. There were no brownie points with this Court for doing the right thing.

By the way, Brian got 22 months at Club Fed and his brother got 14 .

But they got to keep the sign.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Peek-ing Into "Rollover As Business Startup" IRAs

They are called ROBS – an acronym for “Rollovers as Business Startups.” The idea is to own a business through your IRA. Perhaps your IRA could be the bank in the transaction. Perhaps the business will go exponential, which would do wonders for your IRA balance.

Me? I do not particularly care for them. 

Why? This field is so fraught with landmines I cannot help wonder why I would want to cross it. And like Al Pacino in Godfather 3, “just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.” “They” would be a client whom we will call Jay. We were discussing a biomedical startup on the east side of Cincinnati. High risk, high reward: that type of thing. Should it hit he would be having breakfast on his yacht off the coast of St. Augustine. Maybe I could visit.

“If it goes wrong,” said Jay, “I lose my investment. There is still plenty of time for me to recover.”

In this case, Jay was right. Jay would not be working at the business. He would not be renting property or equipment to the business. He would be a passive investor, which reduces his tax risk considerably. 

But what if the business had to borrow money? What do you think the odds are that a small business, with little or no track record, would be able to borrow without the owner’s guarantee? Remember, Jay (or rather, Jay’s IRA) would be an owner. 

This is a trap. Let’s discuss how someone fell into the trap.

In 2001, Lawrence Peek (Peek) and Darrell Fleck (Fleck) decided to buy a fire protection company, Abbott Fire & Safety, Inc (AFS). The brokerage firm facilitating the deal introduced them to Christian Blees, a CPA. Mr. Blees presented a tax strategy, which he called “IACC.” IACC involved establishing a self-directed IRA, transferring money into it from another IRA or 401(k), setting up a new corporation and having the self-directed IRA purchase shares in the new corporation.

In other words, a ROBS.

There is also something subtle here. Mr. Blees had structured a tax strategy, and he sold the strategy to clients. What was his role here? We will come back to this.

Anyway, reams of paperwork were exchanged and signed, with all the waivers and exculpatories and whatnots. Peek and Fleck set up their self directed IRAs. Each puts in $309,000 for a 50% share in a new company (FP). FP in turn acquires Abbott (AFS).

Problem. AFS cost $1,100,000. FP had only $618,000 in cash. What to do? Easy! FP borrows money. Peek and Fleck give personal guarantees.

Peek and Fleck were well advised. In 2003, they each converted one-half of their IRA into a Roth. They each converted the remaining half in 2004. Remember that there is no tax in the future when money comes out of a Roth. FP is going to the stars, and Peek and Fleck are going to make a tax-free bundle.

In 2006, they sell the company for approximately $1.7 million, to be collected over two years.

The IRS examines the 2006 and 2007 tax returns. The IRS voids the IRAs. This means the IRS includes the gain from the sale of FP stock on their personal returns. The IRS also assesses the substantial understatement (20%) penalty. As backup bombardment, the IRS imposes excise taxes for excess contributions to the IRAs.


Let’s walk through this.

An IRA is (generally) exempt from tax under Section 408(e)(1). A tax pro however will continue reading. A little further, Section 408(e)(2)(A) says that an account will cease to be an IRA if “the individual for whose benefit any individual retirement account is established… engages in any transaction prohibited by Section 4975.”

It behooves us to review Section 4975 and to stay as far away from it as possible.

Let us look at this ticking bomb defining a prohibited transaction:

4975(c)(1)(B)  (the) lending of money or other extension of credit between a plan and a disqualified person

So what? There was a guarantee, not a loan, right?

However, a guarantee is considered an indirect extension of credit (this is the Janpol case).

Peek and Fleck argued that the guarantee was between them and FP, not between them and the IRAs.

The Court pointed out the obvious: FP was owned by the IRAS, so - in the end – Peek and Fleck were transacting with their IRAs.

Oh,oh…  a prohibited transaction.

The Court noted that the guarantees existed without interruption since 2001. This meant that the IRAs ceased to be IRAs in 2001, when Peek and Fleck signed the guarantees. Yipes!

The Court now addressed the “substantial underpayment” penalty. Peek and Fleck immediately defended themselves by arguing that they had relied upon a CPA: Christian Blees. Reliance on a pro has long been accepted as reasonable cause to sidestep the penalty.

Too bad, said the Court. Mr. Blees was not a disinterested professional. He was selling a financial product. Heck, he had given it a name: “IACC.” He was not functioning as an independent CPA in this matter. No, he was functioning  as a “promoter.” Reliance on a promoter is not grounds for reasonable cause.

The Court affirmed the substantial understatement penalty.

What about the Roth conversions in 2003 and 2004? Each man would have paid tax upon conversion. Can they now get that money back?

The Court did not address this. Why? Remember that, after three years, a tax year will close. This means that the IRS cannot amend it. It also means that you cannot amend it. This case was decided in May 2013, so unless Peek and Fleck did something special to keep the 2003 and 2004 years open, there was no way to amend those years. They would simply have been out the tax they paid.

And have to pay tax again.

What else could go wrong?

The Court mused on the following questions:

(1) Did wage payments to Peek and Fleck constitute prohibited transactions?
(2) Did rent payments by FP to a company owned by Mrs. Peek and Mrs. Fleck constitute prohibited transactions?
(3) Did Peek and Fleck put too much money into their (Roth) IRAs, thereby triggering the excise tax for excess contributions?

The Court reviewed the wasteland after the nuclear blast of retroactively disqualifying the IRAs and decided that it did not need to consider these issues. Perhaps it felt the bodies were sufficiently dead.

As I said, I do not especially care for ROBS. They can detonate in a hundred different ways. Today we talked about just one of them. 

Monday, May 13, 2013

IRS Apologizes For Targeting Tax-Exempt Applications By Conservative Groups

This has been a difficult few weeks for the IRS.

In March Rep. Charles Boustany (R-La.), chairman of the House Ways and Means oversight subcommittee chastised the agency upon discovering a series of IRS training videos that parodied “Star Trek” and “Gilligan’s Island.” The videos cost the IRS approximately $60,000. The IRS initially refused to make the videos public. They later did after mounting criticism.

In April the American Civil Liberties Union released documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act showing that the IRS criminal tax division believed the agency could access e-mails and text messages without obtaining a warrant. Rep. Charles Boustany demanded the IRS present its policies for when search warrants are needed to review private e-mails and communications.

Last week the IRS announced that it was changing its policy to require search warrants both for criminal and civil tax proceedings.

Last week we found out that an IRS employee at the Covington campus had been charged with destroying at least 800 fiduciary income tax returns. “Fiduciary” is a fancy term for a trust, and the term includes an estate which receives income and has to pay income tax. The employee – Brady James – is only 30 years old, and he could be facing a maximum prison term of 20 years.

One has to wonder what Brady James was thinking.

Last Friday an IRS employee – Lois Lerner, head of the IRS tax-exempt division – responded to a question concerning tax-exempt applications by conservative groups at an American Bar Association conference. A firestorm ignited, and the IRS quickly scheduled a media conference call for the same day.

She apologized for “inappropriate” targeting of conservative political groups during the 2012 election. IRS employees in Cincinnati singled out approximately 75 organizations using “patriot” or “tea party” in their name. The IRS was trying to get ahead of an AP news report, as well as an expected report by the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration.

Why Cincinnati? The IRS breaks up its work functions into units, and these units are located throughout the country. The unit under discussion handles the review of applications for tax-exempt status, and that unit is located in Cincinnati.

The number of organizations filing for tax-exempt status has more than doubled since 2010. To handle the volume, the IRS centralized its review of the applications in Cincinnati. Makes sense, as it allows the development of expertise within the unit and consistency in the process.

Until it goes wrong. Terribly wrong.

The IRS for example responded to the Richmond (VA) Tea Party’s application by requiring additional documentation on 17 different matters. When it did so, the IRS responded by requiring documentation on 53 additional matters. Oh, and the Richmond Tea Party had two weeks to respond.

 “We made some mistakes,” said Lois Lerner. “Some people didn’t use good judgment. For that we are apologetic.”

Heartfelt apology, isn’t it?

Lerner went on to explain that low-level employees initiated the IRS practice. It was not motivated by bias, she said.

COMMENT: Who would even think of bias? Do not pay attention to the fact that groups with words like “progressive” in their name did not receive the same scrutiny.

"It's the line people that did it without talking to managers," Lerner continued. "They're IRS workers, they're revenue agents."

COMMENT: Are there no supervisors in Cincinnati? She makes it sound like her revenue agents are doing whatever they want, without review and apparently without accountability.  I am throwing the B.S. flag on Ms. Lerner.

Lerner told the AP that no high-level IRS officials knew about the practice.

COMMENT: This means some non high-level will take the fall, of course. Hey, there are perks to being a high-level.

Friday was not Lerner’s best moment. At one point she said, "I'm not good at math." Granted, she is an attorney and not an accountant, but still.  That is not a comforting comment from an IRS high-level.

Good grief.