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Monday, December 14, 2009

IRS expands use of informants

Two fascinating stories from Forbes on the IRS's expanded Whistleblower Office: Tax Informants are on the Loose, and IRS Ordered to Surrender Informant Documents. In 2006, Congress told the IRS to start paying informants as much as 30% of delinquent taxes collected in big cases, and the scale of snitching has skyrocketed. As Forbes puts it:
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.
Perhaps the most famous case to date involves Bradley Birkenfeld, an employee of the Swiss bank UBS who gave the IRS information on how wealthy Americans were hiding money with his employer. Although Birkenfeld himself faces a 40-month prison sentence, he may be able to keep millions in reward money--another new rule. Again from Forbes:
Before the new law, IRS Whistleblower Officer Director Stephen Whitlock notes, "if you participated in the tax noncompliance--you could have been the accountant doing the ministerial activity--you could be flat-out barred" from a reward. Now such a functionary is eligible for a full reward, even if he is convicted of, say, stealing from the company he squeals on. An informant who "planned and initiated" a tax scheme is still eligible for a reduced award--unless he's convicted for that planning role.
In other words, the IRS is moving closer to the snitching norm, in which admitted criminals reap benefits from their cooperation. At the same time, the IRS informant program may be running into resistance. In the second story, a federal judge has ordered the IRS to return documents provided by an informant who stole the documents from the company Monex. Apparently the court was not content to let the government decide which stolen Monex documents were privileged, although the government is likely to get many of the documents back in the end. As Forbes frames the problem, "How far can the government go in using information from an insider and what should be the procedures for handling that information?" As I explain in the book, this concern for the privacy and rights of criminal targets--and the concomitant restrictions on informant use--is more characteristic of white collar investigations in which defendants tend to be well-resourced and well-defended, and is notably lacking in the street- and drug-enforcement arena.