Tax Informants Are On The Loose

December 1, 2009 by
Filed under: IRS 

By Janet Novack and William P. Barrett, Forbes.com

For 24 years Vincent A. Spondello toiled away as an accountant for a group of related companies known as Monex, a large Newport Beach, Calif. precious metals dealer. A trusted employee, he prepared tax returns and was given such tasks as overseeing the destruction of old corporate documents. It turns out that some records that were supposedly destroyed he took home instead.

In May Spondello sent 25 boxes of original Monex papers to the Internal Revenue Service–documents that could buttress the IRS’ claim that Monex’s owners fraudulently moved around assets to avoid a $378 million tax bill. He made his document drop after hiring lawyers and filing a claim for a whistleblower reward that could total $57 million or more. Monex denies it owes anything, has fired Spondello and is demanding back its documents.

“He’s a good guy,” says Spondello lawyer Robert D. Coviello. “But he is a rat.”

Pay attention. There are Vincent Spondellos taking notes, taking names and taking documents across America, and beyond.

For years the IRS grudgingly paid stingy rewards to squealers who brought it mostly small cases; during 2004 and 2005, 428 informants received a total of $12 million–only 7% of the paltry $168 million all their leads brought in. But in 2006, hoping to entice insiders to rat out big-dollar cheats and corporate tax shelters and games, Congress directed the IRS to pay tipsters at least 15% and as much as 30% of taxes, penalties and interest collected in cases where $2 million or more is at stake.

The gambit seems to be working very well. The IRS continues to get thousands of small case tips a year. But in fiscal 2009, ended Oct. 30, the IRS Whistleblower Office also logged big case leads on 1,900 taxpayers, up from 1,246 in fiscal 2008, the first full year the new law was in effect. Dozens of these tips involve purported tax losses of $100 million or more. Sure, those are just allegations. But informants “often provide extensive documentation to support their claims,” the Whistleblower Office noted in a report. The Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, in a separate report, added up all the 2008 tips and found that $65 billion in unreported income was alleged.

The slow-moving IRS has yet to pay any bounties under the new scheme, which the Inspector General report said still had “deficiencies” in its execution. But the government itself is already reaping big rewards.

In June 2007 Bradley C. Birkenfeld–motivated in large part, he now acknowledges, by the new reward law–came to U.S. officials with documents in hand and laid out how his former employer, UBS AG, helped wealthy Americans hide money offshore. So far the investigation he triggered has produced a $780 million payment to the U.S. government from UBS, Switzerland’s largest bank; an unprecedented agreement by the Swiss to finger 4,450 U.S. taxpayers with secret UBS accounts; and criminal investigations of more than 150 American UBS clients. That, in turn, helped pressure 14,700 taxpayers to make “voluntary” disclosures of previously undisclosed offshore kitties during a special program earlier this year, yielding extra billions in tax for the Treasury. “The entire game has changed on international tax evasion,” crows IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman.

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