One revenue-raising strategy unveiled in President Barack Obama’s budget proposal on Monday calls for beefing up the Internal Revenue Service’s enforcement efforts. That could mean increased scrutiny on individual tax returns, especially for small business owners.
The president’s budget plan would increase the IRS’s budget next year to $12.8 billion, about $950 million more than the 2012 budget, with the goal of ramping up collections from individuals and business that are behind on federal and state taxes or that owe government loans. The bulk of this money would be part of a program to prevent tax evasion and cheating and to update the IRS’s data system, according to the proposal. The reforms call for increasing collection by more than $2 billion over the next 10 years, much of that owed to states. The enforcement program should return $5 for each additional IRS dollar spent, according to the proposal. The IRS did not respond to requests for comment.
Weekend Investor’s recent “IRS Whistleblower” feature story, about how to turn in a tax cheat to the Internal Revenue Service and collect part of the proceeds, drew a host of reader comments. Reaction ranged from enthusiastic support of the program—“White-collar crime detection deserves the help of citizens”—to outright condemnation of it, with detractors comparing the IRS’s efforts to police-state tactics.
Tax cheats have more to worry about than just whistleblowers. According to recent report from a governmental watchdog, the criminal division of the IRS is getting more efficient. The study was issued by the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, known as TIGTA, which closely monitors the IRS and often issues assessments critical of it.
This TIGTA report was unusually positive. It praised IRS agents for taking an average of 365 days to complete a case vs. 401 days in 2009. The agency spent about $660 million on criminal tax cases during the 2010 fiscal year.
Overall, the IRS criminal division initiated some 4,700 investigations and completed 4,300 during the same period, exceeding preset goals in both categories.
Most important, say outside experts, is that the IRS continues to make progress on initiating “pure” criminal tax cases. These are cases in which the tax charges are central to the case, instead of simply an add-on to a long list of more important charges, such as drug running or money laundering. The agency calls these cases “legal-source investigations.”
Rapper and actor Ja Rule was sentenced Monday to 28-months in federal prison and was ordered to pay $1.1 million in unpaid taxes for not filing income tax returns.
The multi-platinum-selling artist, whose real name is Jeffrey Atkins, admitted in March that he hadn’t paid taxes on more than $3 million he earned between 2004 and 2006 while living in Saddle River, N.J.
According to the Associated Press, before his sentencing at a New Jersey federal court, he blamed “youthful inexperience, bad advice and the inability to manage fame” for his mistakes.
Last month, he was sentenced in New York to up to two years in prison after he pleaded guilty to attempted criminal weapon possession. That case stems from an incident in 2007 when authorities found a semi-automatic gun in his luxury sports car.
Actor Wesley Snipes isn’t getting a new day in court, at least not this time.
The Supreme Court announced Monday that it wouldn’t consider his appeal for a 3-year-prison term for tax evasion.
The Hollywood star is serving his sentence in Pennsylvania and not scheduled for release until 2013. He was convicted in 2008 of three misdemeanor charges of willful failure to file income tax returns.
Snipes said his constitutional rights were violated because he should have been impaneled where the crime allegedly occurred. The actor wanted his 2008 tax trial to be held in New York City, where he lived, but the charges were brought in Florida, where he held a driver’s license, according to Fox News.
Whoever says the rich suffer less than the rest of us hasn’t seen the most recent Internal Revenue Service audit numbers. In recent years, the agency has ramped up its scrutiny of wealthy taxpayers – especially those earning more than $500,000 annually, according to a Wall Street Journal story by Laura Saunders, who writes the Tax Report.
Accountants and tax preparers say the heightened analysis is significantly different from the audit practices of the previous decade. While the percentage of taxpayers who were audited increased in every income category in 2010, there was much more scrutiny of the very rich. More than 18% of those with adjusted gross incomes of at least $10 million were audited in 2010, up from 10.6 in fiscal 2009. About 11.5% of those earning $5 million to $10 million were audited in fiscal 2010 compared to about 7.5% a year earlier. In contrast, fewer than 2% of those earning between $200,000 and $500,000 and less than 1% for those earning $100,000 to $200,000 got the extra attention.
It’s easy to slip up on a tax return. An honest mistake could cost you a penalty; an intentional violation of the law is another matter. That could send you to prison.
And when the government seeks jail time for tax cheats, it gets it nearly 90% of the time. Most people got into trouble because they failed to report income from a cash business, property sales or foreign earnings. Many also intentionally claimed wrong deductions.
The best way to avoid trouble – besides not engaging in fraud - is to keep track of cash receipts and employers. That way you can prove your case if you’re audited. And ignorance isn’t a defense. For example, someone who doesn’t get a Form 1099 from an employer still has to report the income that would have been on it.
Right now, the IRS is paying close attention to Americans with money in Swiss and other foreign bank accounts. The tax authority is looking over many of these cases with a fine-tooth comb because of the heightened attention to the issue of offshore tax evasion. But generally, in cases like these, common sense has come into play in the past. A person who reported a lot of income in the U.S. but failed to report on a small foreign account would not have been at risk criminally.
A consultant providing services to Wall Street firms recently came to George M. Clarke, a partner at law firm Miller Chevalier in Washington, D.C. Clarke, worried about not having reported $60,000 of income after a customer didn’t send a 1099. The IRS, says Clarke, will want to know if the misstep is the only one he made and what kind of accounting system he uses. This kind of situation is common and not likely to lead to jail.
By contrast, Robert E. McKenzie, an attorney in the Chicago law firm Arnstein & Lehr LLP, recently helped two clients plead guilty to skimming money from their plumbing business to the tune of more than $100,000 a year. Each of the men will spend ten months in jail. They had been cashing some checks at a local check cashing store where the IRS had a sting operation set up.
The trial of filmmaker Wendy Weiner Runge has all the flair of a Hollywood drama: a tax scandal in the millions of dollars, the silver screen, the toppling of a pyramid of insiders. But the venue—Des Moines, Iowa—is about as far from Tinseltown a film can get.
Runge, charged with first-degree theft among other counts, faces the music this week as her trial unfolds and with it, the details of a scandal that prompted the state to suspend its film-incentive program until 2013. The filmmaker could be on the hook for $1.85 million in transferable tax credits applied to, what the prosecution argues to be, sham production expenses for science-fiction film “The Scientist.” The 45-year-old mother of four faces a maximum penalty of 25 years behind bars.
A number of states have paid billions of dollars in tax incentives to lure an industry formerly locked down by California studios. Governors of states like Michigan, Ohio and Texas—among many others—lobbied hard to encourage film production on their turf. Forty-four states offered movie-production incentives and 28 offered film tax credits in 2009, according to a Tax Foundation report. Last year saw the first dip in state participants over the past decade when four states suspended or terminated their programs completely.
Roll out the red carpet. The 2010 tax season will probably introduce a star-studded cast of tax evaders, many of whom are already on the IRS’s blacklist.
These celeb tax dodgers help contribute (at least in a small way) to what the IRS estimates to be a $290 billion tax gap—the difference between what’s reported and what’s owed, according to latest data.
Check out who among the elite of the silver screen, television screen and radio waves is hiding from Uncle Sam in the limelight.
Val Kilmer: Even Iceman can’t outmaneuver the IRS. The actor, whose mug has been on the screens with Top Gun, Batman and Heat, among other Hollywood blockbusters, faces a $500,000 lien against his 6,000-acre New Mexico ranch for unpaid 2008 taxes. That comes less than a year after Kilmer settled another $538,858 of owed taxes. To help square away his latest debt, Kilmer discounted the price tag on his ranch to $18.5 million from $23 million (and from an original asking price of $33 million).
Richard Hatch: Federal prosecutors in Rhode Island want to throw the former “Survivor” winner back behind bars for allegedly violating the terms of his three-year supervised release when he refused to file amended tax returns for 2000 and 2001.
Hatch, convicted in 2006 for failing to pay taxes on the $1 million in the show’s prize money, already spent three years in jail from 2006 to 2009, and he still owes about $1.7 million in back taxes. The reality-TV star claims he didn’t re-file because he has an appeal pending in the U.S. Tax Court. The argument apparently doesn’t hold water for the Assistant U.S. Attorney, whose directive could leave Hatch serving up to two more years in the hole. Suddenly, those long-ago trials on that tiny Malaysian island are looking like a walk in the park.
Nas: The IRS hopes the latest $6.46 million lien against the hip-hop star will put a wrap on his deadbeat filing habits. Beyond the bad blood he’s established with the IRS, the rapper is widely known for his years-long feud with rival hip-hop artist Jay-Z.
The Tax Blog brings together a team of award-winning tax journalists from the Dow Jones network and around the web to examine the tax issues, changes and legislation that affect families, investors and small business owners. Our contributors include Tax Report columnist Laura Saunders (WSJ), Tax Guy columnist Bill Bischoff and senior reporter Jilian Mincer (SmartMoney.com), retirement-focused reporter Anne Tergesen (WSJ), wealth management writer Arden Dale (Dow Jones Newswires), TaxWatch columnist Eva Rosenberg and personal finance reporter Andrea Coombes (MarketWatch), and reporter Alyssa Abkowitz (SmartMoney). They’ll provide the latest news and insight, mine the tax code for tips and loopholes, and answer your questions about tricky tax situations. Contact the The Tax Blog with ideas, suggestions or tax questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.