The IRS’s New Whistleblower Program – Another Enforcement Alert for International Business
The international business community has witnessed an increase in US tax enforcement activity arising from individual whistleblower claims filed with the US Internal Revenue Service. One such instance recently came to light in press reports about a former employee of LGT bank in Liechtenstein who sold information to the IRS and other tax authorities purporting to reveal the names of hundreds of taxpayers with previously undisclosed assets. While the issue of the disclosures made of LGT account holders has been public for some weeks, the new information is that this individual is represented by a US lawyer and is seeking a reward under an enhanced IRS whistleblower program that will pay substantial amounts, potentially millions, to informants who provide information that leads to the collection of US tax, penalties and other amounts.
The Liechtenstein matter is not an isolated event. Newspapers last month carried another whistleblower story involving a former employee of RaboBank Group, who allegedly reported to the IRS that the Dutch bank had financed over 100 questionable transactions involving billions of dollars for various multinational companies. Plaintiff’s lawyers are also seeking notoriety. In a press release issued by a US law firm located in Washington, D.C., the firm boasted that it had filed a whistleblower claim in excess of $4 billion in May, 2008, and that it filed another claim in excess of $2 billion in December, 2007, on behalf if its clients, hoping to recover hundreds of millions of dollars from the US government.
Why the increase in whistleblower activity? The IRS has always offered rewards to informants through the IRS’ “Whistleblower Program.” However, in late 2006, those rules were modified, making the rewards richer and the likelihood of recovery more certain. As a result, whistleblower claims have significantly increased in the past year as the procedures for filing and collecting claims have been clarified. Because the program seeks, among other things, to entice corporate employees to come forward with information about what they perceive to be tax fraud, every multinational company with a US tax presence should be aware of its pertinent provisions and some of the difficult legal issues that may arise.
The 2006 Legislation
For over 140 years, US tax laws authorized the payment of rewards to persons who provide information leading to the collection of tax. The program was underutilized, however, because informants had few rights, the IRS placed strict limits on the amounts of rewards and, in practice, the IRS was grudging in making payments either because it contended that it already had the information or that the informant had participated in the non-compliance activities.
In 2006, Congress saw the possibility of raising additional tax revenue by enticing informants to come forward with information that might lead to examinations or even criminal investigations potentially culminating in the collection of substantial amounts of tax, penalties and interest. The preexisting reward program does remain in effect for small claims. Under those provisions, information leading to the collection of less than $2 million in tax, penalties and other amounts, (or information that involves an individual with less than $200,000 in income), may prompt a reward of up to 15% of the collected amount. The IRS retains complete and unreviewable discretion to decide on reward amounts.
However, the 2006 legislation created a second class of rewards for larger cases. If the IRS collects more than $2,000,000 (or if the offending taxpayer is an individual with income in excess of $200,000), the law provides that the IRS “shall pay” between 15-30% of the collected amount if the information submitted substantially contributed to the collection of the additional amounts (with some qualifications). There is no cap to a reward. The IRS is authorized to reduce the amounts if the whistleblower merely provided useful information after some public disclosure of the wrongdoing or if he or she participated in the wrongdoing. However, the whistleblower may appeal any IRS decision as to this category of reward to the US Tax Court. The IRS is also authorized to request assistance in these cases from the whistleblower and his or her counsel.
A few other items in the expanded informant program are noteworthy:
- The IRS now has a new “Whistleblower Office,” staffed by professional IRS personnel, who will evaluate information provided by informants to determine whether to refer matters out for examination or criminal investigation. This same Office will evaluate claims for rewards. This Office is now up and running and, according to published reports, is already receiving substantial “tips” and information leading to new examinations and investigations.
- If a corporate taxpayer is audited annually, informants may nonetheless collect rewards if information they submit leads to the creation of a previously unknown issue in a given Audit Plan or if it changes the manner in which information gleaned routinely is reviewed and analyzed.
- Whistleblowers may simply gather evidence of what they perceive to be tax wrongdoing, fill out IRS Form 211, and mail the material to the Whistleblower Office for evaluation and potential action.
- As under preexisting rules, payments under both reward categories will not be made until the tax, penalties and other amounts have been collected.
- Also like the pre-2006 practice, taxpayer confidentiality rules severely limit the degree to which the IRS may disclose information to the whistleblower about matters based on information provided.
- The IRS will keep the whistleblower’s name confidential throughout the process as much as possible, and will inform the whistleblower before deciding whether to embark on a case where it will not be able to maintain confidentiality.
The new whistleblower provisions create obvious incentives for corporate employees to assemble evidence of tax wrongdoing and approach the IRS. In our experience, we have already seen matters brought to the attention of the Whistleblower Office regarding US tax withholding issues, the participation by companies in transactions substantially similar to “listed transactions” and “tax shelters,” and the use of complex offshore business structures to disguise the source of income. We have also seen a number of matters begun by relatively unsophisticated low to mid-level employees, who believe they see tax wrongdoing when it does not exist, but who find a willing ear in IRS personnel who are not trained in the technical nuance of a given company’s business. Those cases, nonetheless, can be costly to defend if an audit is undertaken as a result of the whistleblower report.
Given the large dollar amounts of potential rewards, a new type of tax lawyer is emerging, analogous to those in the qui tam context relating to false claims made to the government. (The US has had a similar system for many years in the non-tax arena, known as the qui tam process, aimed at ferreting out false claims made to the government in situations involving government contracts, Medicare and related matters.) These lawyers, specializing in dealing with the Whistleblower Office, and offering contingent fee arrangements, are actively courting potential clients to come forward with information that may be of interest to the IRS.
Aside from the obvious proposition that compliance with US tax law is the best protection against cases generated by tax informants, the new process poses a number of issues to corporate tax officers, human resources, and in-house legal departments:
- If a corporation suspects that an employee may be gathering information for a whistleblower claim, what steps may be taken? Various jurisdictions have laws that prohibit any act to retaliate against a whistleblower, which are usually well known, but identifying the appropriate steps that can legally be taken to investigate the claim must be well understood, given the nature of the potential claim and likely investigation by governmental authorities.
- Does an employee have an expectation of privacy regarding the use of office computer and telephone networks? Would it be permissible to engage in a full search of such data to ascertain if an employee is communicating with IRS personnel? If an employee is communicating with his or her own counsel using company resources, what safeguards are in place regarding whether the employer may interfere in that attorney-client relationship or even contact the employee directly, as opposed to contacting the person’s lawyer?
- If an employee is removing proprietary or confidential information off of the company premises, may the company file a lawsuit to prevent such action? May the company seek a judicial writ requiring its return? Note that US law permits the federal government to go to court to enjoin any action against a potential witness that may frustrate law enforcement in pursuing a given case. What steps can be taken to legally secure corporate records?
- Can the employee engage in conduct that would violate the law in order to gather information to use against the corporation? While the IRS explicitly discourages an individual from engaging in illegal conduct, the fact that the employee may have broken the law in gathering the information will not necessarily prevent the IRS from using evidence that has been gathered. What steps can a corporation take to ensure its rights are protected?
- What can management do when the employee has participated, organized or structured the transaction that is now the subject of the investigation? Note: an employee’s participation in the relevant transactions would not foreclose a reward under the new guidelines. IRS rules provide that even such persons may qualify, albeit in reduced amounts.
Finally, cases reported by whistleblowers need not lead to criminal prosecution or even criminal inquiry. Indeed, under IRS practice, criminal cases take longer to work through the system to the point where the IRS can collect from the defendant, and since collection of the tax is often the motivation for the claim and source of the informant’s reward, the program seems designed to promote disclosure of non-criminal matters. So a corporate tax department is not immune from the implications of the IRS Whistleblower Program by simply establishing – as nearly all do – the lack of a commission of any fraudulent act. Any civil tax issue, however technical, is fair game and the more money involved the greater the incentive to the informant and his or her counsel.
Multinational businesses with a US tax presence should consider policies and best practices for company management, corporate accounting, legal, and human resources departments in order to establish appropriate protocol to address a situation involving a potential tax whistleblower. For those companies that have established such policies to address whistleblowers in the context of other regulatory matters, (i.e., FDA, SEC, Environmental, Labor, etc.), pre-existing policies may need to be tailored to include procedures specific to this type of whistleblower claim.
While senior corporate personnel may have always been cognizant that any employee could approach a tax authority with information that leads to an investigation, the playing field is now tilted to encourage such conduct. Tax officials who administer tax compliance structures that interface with the US in any respect should be aware of, and be prepared to react to, this changed environment.