Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Beany Baby Billionaire Caught With Secret Swiss Bank Account

I cannot understand people who go to great lengths to underreport income. I am not talking about tax planning – perhaps even aggressive tax planning – to reduce one’s tax under the law. Some actions are so routine one may not even see them as tax planning, such as moving from a higher-tax state (say Ohio) to a lower-tax state (say Florida or Nevada). 

What I am talking about is flat-out tax evasion. We have now crossed a line. The Supreme Court has acknowledged that no one is under compulsion to pay more tax than necessary, but likewise all are under compulsion to pay the appropriate tax.

Enter Ty Warner. He was responsible for the “beanie babies” from the 1990s and is the 100% owner of TY Inc and other business interests. There must be a LOT of money in beanie babies, as Forbes has ranked him as the 209th wealthiest American, with a net worth estimated at $2.6 billion.

He opens a secret bank account with UBS in 1996. In 2002 he transfers over $93 million from there to another Swiss Bank. He obfuscates the ownership of the account by tagging it with the name “Molani Foundation.” The UBS account threw off $3.2 million in income for 2002.  This income is not reported to the accountants and is not included on his tax return. Mind you, he had already reported $49.1 million on his income tax return.

QUESTION: Is it possible to have so much income that one forgets some of his/her income?

You can pretty much guess that there was no FBAR filed. How could there be? There apparently was no "foreign" account, at least to Warner.

Fast forward the conversation and UBS gets dragged into the IRS and Justice Department hunt for secret Swiss bank accounts.

Oh, oh, Warner realizes the jig is up. He tries to enter the IRS Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Program, but he was denied entry. A likely reason is that the IRS had already identified him as owner of one or more unreported accounts.

Now he has a serious problem. Could there be tax fraud? I cannot say. I can say that I recall sitting across a conference table from a client who could not tell you (or me) if his tax return – showing $33 million in gross income – included all his income for the year. Is it possible that $3.2 million got lost in Warner’s reported income of $49.1 million? It is possible, but the other actions – like fudging the name of the Swiss account or not telling the accountants – look bad.

What Warner did run into face-first is the FBAR reporting. This is the filing for foreign accounts over $10 thousand. It is mailed separately from the tax return, and it is due July 1. For decades no one paid much attention to these reports, but in the aughts the IRS decided that there was money to be found. They began the crackdown on foreign bank accounts, starting with UBS - eventually ensnaring Ty Warner. The penalties for an FBAR are confiscatorily insane, as the government somehow justifies that they can take up to half of whatever is in the account. For multiple years. Reflect for a moment that the government is saying that – should they press beyond two years - they can take from you more than you have – or ever had – in the account.

This has nothing to do with the earnings from the account. For example, for 2002 Warner’s secret account generated approximately $3.2 million in income. Did the government want taxes on the $3.2 million, which would be about $1 million? Nope. Did they want all of that $3.2 million? Nope.

What they wanted was one-half of the highest balance in the account. What was that amount for Warner? Try $53.6 million.

Warner doesn’t pay taxes on $3.2 million. Let’s be generous and say that it was $3.2 million for several years. It now costs him $53.6 million to cash-out?

Set aside whether this is confiscatory. I cannot understand why Warner –or anyone - would even go there. Let’s be honest: would he even have noticed the taxes had he correctly reported the $3.2 million to begin with? 

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