James Traficant Dies

September 27th, 2014

James Traficant, the colorful ex-Congressman from Youngstown, Ohio, died today at age 73. He had been injured on Tuesday when a tractor flipped on to him at his farm near Youngstown.

Mr. Traficant spent eight years at ClubFed following his conviction on charges of tax evasion, bribery, racketeering, and obstruction of justice. After his release in 2009, he ran for Congress as an independent but lost. As a Congressman, Mr. Traficant was known for his bombastic style and his trademark saying of “Beam me up.”

My condolences to his family.

California Mandates E-Filing of Business Returns

September 27th, 2014

The California legislature passed a law mandating e-filing of most business returns beginning with 2014 returns filed in 2015. This legislation was signed into law. Exemptions are available but must be requested from the Franchise Tax Board. Although not mentioned in the law, presumably a return that fails in e-filing (is rejected by the FTB) would also be allowed to be paper filed.

The exemptions that are available are for technology issues and other items that constitute “reasonable cause and not willful neglect.” A penalty of $100 for an initial failure is in the law, with repeated violations being charged $500. The requirement applies to C-Corporations, S-Corporations, partnerships, LLCs, and exempt organizations.

There is one major issue with the law that I see: Most tax software today does not allow for electronic filing of a single-member LLC return (a disregarded entity). While there is no federal return for such an entity, California does require the return to be filed (and an $800 annual fee be paid). California also does not have its own online system to e-file business returns. My software currently does not have the ability to e-file a California single-member LLC return. I’ll be asking my software provider about this…but not until after October 15th.

They Both Begin With “E”

September 21st, 2014

Here’s a good way to make some money (for a while). You create a phony vendor, and send invoices to your company for that vendor for work that was, of course, never preformed. The money from the phony vendor isn’t reported on your tax return–it’s always good when your after-tax income is the same as your before-tax income.

Now, there are some potential drawbacks to this scheme. You would be embezzling from your company. Depending on how you do that, it will be some sort of felony. Not reporting the illegal income on your tax return is tax evasion, another felony. And if you do this scheme over multiple years, that’s multiple felonies.

If your business were audited, it’s possible that the IRS might discover this (or a state tax agency). That would be problematic.

Now, you might think that no one would do this–especially that no one would do this and steal money from his own company. You would be wrong.

Michael Stover of Plymouth, Michigan did this exact scheme. Mr. Stover was president of Omni Facility Service and did this scheme with his invented subcontractor from 2004 through 2010. And we’re talking big dollars here: Per the Department of Justice press release, “Stover embezzled approximately $2,178,423 from Omni.” He also didn’t report this income on his tax returns.

Mr. Stover is looking at spending some time at ClubFed, a possible fine, and restitution. He’ll be sentenced in January.

“I’ve tried to tell you the truth every time I’ve been here”

September 21st, 2014

That quote is from IRS Commissioner John Koskinen during his testimony from earlier this week on Capitol Hill. I have a simple question for Commissioner Koskinen: Why doesn’t that quote read, “I’ve told you the truth every time I’ve been here”?

The obfuscation coming from the IRS hurts the entire US population. The IRS’s budget has been (rightfully) cut: Republicans are not willing to fund what appears to be a partisan office being used against the GOP.

Hyatt Decision a Win for FTB as Far as Damages, but Decision Upheld that FTB Committed Fraud

September 18th, 2014

The Nevada Supreme Court released its decision today in Franchise Tax Board of California v. Hyatt. The decision is definitely a win for the FTB as far as damages; however, the Court upheld that the FTB committed fraud against Mr. Hyatt and the damage award for fraud. Overall, some portions of the District Court decision were reversed, other portions were upheld, and still other portions were remanded for more proceedings.

First, for those who want to read more than the summary I’m going to present, I strongly recommend reading the opinion. It’s quite readable though long (it runs 68 pages). That it runs this long for a unanimous decision just goes to show how lengthy this litigation has been.

As for the decision:
1. The Court upheld that the FTB is not immune to lawsuits for intentional torts and bad-faith conduct. Thus, Mr. Hyatt’s lawsuit has basis in law.

2. Most of Mr. Hyatt’s claims fail, though, as a matter of law. There are two exceptions: fraud and intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED). Those claims are valid as far as law per the Nevada Supreme Court.

3. The Court upheld the jury’s finding that the FTB made false representation to Mr. Hyatt, and upholds the award of $1,085,281.56 of damages.

4. The Court upheld the jury’s finding that the FTB committed IIED. However, the damages were not upheld. This has been remanded back to the District Court for a new trial on the amount of damages committed against Mr. Hyatt.

5. The Court ruled that “Because punitive damages would not be available against a Nevada government entity, we hold, under comity principles, that FTB is immune from punitive damages.” This is a huge win for the FTB, as $250 million of punitive damages were awarded at trial.

6. The FTB should look at this result and realize the egg on their face…but probably won’t.

1. The Court gives an excellent history of the case, and its winding road to the US Supreme Court and back to the District Court for trial. There are still more trials to come besides the remand proceedings. Mr. Hyatt’s appeal of the FTB’s rulings against him has still not been heard in California. Additionally, Mr. Hyatt sued the FTB in federal district court in Sacramento alleging that the FTB has deprived him of his constitutional rights.

The FTB first again challenged whether or not Mr. Hyatt could sue the FTB. There is a legal principle called “comity.” Generally, under comity, “…[A] forum state may give effect to the laws and judicial decisions of another state based in part on deference and respect for the other state, but only so long as the other state’s laws are not contrary to the policies of the forum state.” The FTB loses here:

Because we conclude that discretionary-function immunity under NRS 41.032 does not include intentional torts and bad-faith conduct, a Nevada government agency would not receIve immunity under these circumstances, and thus, we do not extend such immunity to FTB under comity principles, as to do so would be contrary to the policy of this state.

2. The Court then looked at the torts that Mr. Hyatt alleged the FTB committed. “Hyatt brought three invasion of privacy causes of action-intrusion upon seclusion, publicity of private facts, and false light-and additional causes of action for breach of confidential relationship, abuse of process, fraud, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.”

Mr. Hyatt loses the intrusion upon seclusion and publicity of private facts because the facts that the FTB released (his personal confidential information including his social security number) were in the public domain previously.

The FTB next challenges whether there is a “false light” tort. The Nevada Supreme Court says that there is such a tort. The FTB also appeals arguing that Mr. Hyatt did not present any evidence that anyone thought he was a ‘tax cheat’ based on the litigation list published by the FTB or the FTB’s third-party contacts.

The record before us reveals that no evidence presented by Hyatt in the underlying suit supported the jury’s conclusion that FTB portrayed Hyatt in a false light. Because Hyatt has failed to establish a false light claim, we reverse the district court’s judgment on this claim. [citation omitted]

The FTB argues that there cannot be a breach of a confidential relationship because there was no such relationship. The Court looked at what causes a confidential relationship as far as a tort.

But in conducting the audits, FTB was not required to act with Hyatt’s interests in mind; rather, it had a duty to proceed on behalf of the state of California’s interest. Moreover, the parties’ relationship was not akin to a family or business relationship. Hyatt argues for a broad range of relationships that can meet the requirement under Perry, but we reject this contention. Perry does not provide for so expansive a relationship as Hyatt asks us to recognize as sufficient to establish a claim for a breach of confidential relationship. Thus, FTB and Hyatt’s relationship cannot form the basis for a breach of a confidential relationship cause of action, and this cause of action fails as a matter of law. The district court judgment in Hyatt’s favor on this claim is reversed. [citations and footnotes omitted]

The FTB then challenges the abuse of process tort. The FTB asserted that there can’t be abuse of process as the FTB did not use the judicial process. The Court agreed:

Because FTB did not use any legal enforcement process, such as filing a court action, in relation to its demands for information or otherwise during the audits, Hyatt cannot meet the requirements for establishing an abuse of process claim.

3. The next tort was fraud. “To prove a fraud claim, the plaintiff must show that the defendant made a false representation that the defendant knew or believed was false, that the defendant intended to persuade the plaintiff to act or not act based on the representation, and that the plaintiff had reason to rely on the representation and suffered damages.”

The FTB argued that its statements to Mr. Hyatt that it would provide him with “courteous treatment” and keep his information confidential weren’t sufficient basis for a fraud claim, and even if that was sufficient there wasn’t any evidence that such representations were false when made. On the other hand, Mr. Hyatt claims that the FTB misrepresented their promises.

Here, the Court ruled in favor of Mr. Hyatt.

The record before us shows that a reasonable mind could conclude that FTB made specific representations to Hyatt that it intended for Hyatt to rely on, but which it did not intend to fully meet. FTB represented to Hyatt that it would protect his confidential information and treat him courteously. At trial, Hyatt presented evidence that FTB disclosed his social security number and home address to numerous people and entities and that FTB revealed to third parties that Hyatt was being audited.

There’s more here, and I’ll get to this in my views (below, in #6).

The FTB then argued that there should be a limit on the damages based on fraud (based on the FTB being immune from fraud in California and there being certain limits in Nevada), while Mr. Hyatt argues that the FTB isn’t entitled to any caps on damages. The Court agreed with Mr. Hyatt:

This state’s policy interest in providing adequate redress to Nevada citizens is paramount to providing FTB a statutory cap on damages under comity. Therefore, as we conclude that allowing FTB a statutory cap would violate this state’s public policy in this area, comity does not require this court to grant FTB such relief. As this is the only argument FTB raised in regard to the special damages awarded under the fraud cause of action, we affirm the amount of damages awarded for fraud. [citation omitted]

4. The court then looked at intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED). The FTB argued that because Mr. Hyatt didn’t provide any medical evidence, he can’t claim IIED. Mr. Hyatt disagreed, and that given that he was severely harmed that the proof level can be less than medical records. The Court agreed with Mr. Hyatt, and that this case was on the more extreme end of the scale:

As explained above in discussing the fraud claim, FTB disclosed personal information that it promised to keep confidential and delayed resolution of Hyatt’s protests for 11 years, resulting in a daily interest charge of $8,000. Further, Hyatt presented testimony that the auditor who conducted the majority of his two audits made disparaging remarks about Hyatt and his religion, was determined to impose tax assessments against him, and that FTB fostered an environment in which the imposition of tax assessments was the objective whenever an audit was undertaken…

In support of his lIED claim, Hyatt presented testimony from three different people as to the how the treatment from FTB caused Hyatt emotional distress and physically affected him. This included testimony of how Hyatt’s mood changed dramatically, that he became distant and much less involved in various activities, started drinking heavily, suffered severe migraines and had stomach problems, and became obsessed with the legal issues involving FTB. We conclude that this evidence, in connection with the severe treatment experienced by Hyatt, provided sufficient evidence from which a jury could reasonably determine that Hyatt suffered severe emotional distress.

However, the damage award for this claim was not upheld, and the Court remanded the case back to the District Court for a new trial on the damages. The Court concluded that there was evidentiary and jury instruction errors.

5. The FTB appealed whether punitive damages are allowed. “FTB argues that it is entitled to immunity from punitive damages based on comity because, like Nevada, California law has expressly waived such damages against its government entities. California law provides full immunity from punitive damages for its government agencies.” The Court finds that comity warrants that the FTB be immune from punitive damages:

The broad allowance for punitive damages under NRS 42.005 does not authorize punitive damages against a government entity. Further, under comity principles, we afford FTB the protections of California immunity to the same degree as we would provide immunity to a Nevada government entity as outlined in NRS 41.035(1). Thus, Hyatt’s argument that Nevada law provides for the award of punitive damages against FTB is unpersuasive. Because punitive damages would not be available against a Nevada government entity, we hold that under comity principles FTB is immune from punitive damages. We therefore reverse the portion of the district court’s judgment awarding punitive damages against FTB.

6. My thoughts: If I as a tax professional were to conduct myself in the manner that the FTB did, I would almost certainly be liable for truckloads of damages and would lose my license. Consider that the Nevada Supreme Court called the conduct of the FTB “extreme.” Consider also that at trial the FTB called its conduct typical:

Tax agents rummaged through his trash without warrants, visited business partners and doctors, and shared his Social Security Number and other personal information with the media. This is outrageous behavior and I call on the FTB to rein in their agents. What really galled me is the FTB testified in open court that this level of harassment was only a typical audit. If true, then the stormtroopers are alive and well at the FTB.

The author of the above quote, Bill Leonard, knows what he’s talking about. He’s a former member of the California Board of Equalization, the California tax agency which hears appeals from the FTB. There really isn’t much to add to that description. But let me include the entire text of what the Nevada Supreme Court wrote in affirming that the FTB committed fraud:

The record before us shows that a reasonable mind could conclude that FTB made specific representations to Hyatt that it intended for Hyatt to rely on, but which it did not intend to fully meet. FTB represented to Hyatt that it would protect his confidential information and treat him courteously. At trial, Hyatt presented evidence that FTB disclosed his social security number and home address to numerous people and entities and that FTB revealed to third parties that Hyatt was being audited. In addition, FTB sent letters concerning the 1991 audit to several doctors with the same last name, based on its belief that one of those doctors provided Hyatt treatment, but without first determining which doctor actually treated Hyatt before sending the correspondence. Furthermore, Hyatt showed that FTB took 11 years to resolve Hyatt’s protests of the two audits. Hyatt alleged that this delay resulted in $8,000 in interest per day accruing against him for the outstanding taxes owed to California. Also at trial, Hyatt presented evidence through Candace Les, a former FTB auditor and friend of the main auditor on Hyatt’s audit, Sheila Cox, that Cox had made disparaging comments about Hyatt and his religion, that Cox essentially was intent on imposing an assessment against Hyatt, and that FTB promoted a culture in which tax assessments were the end goal whenever an audit was undertaken. Hyatt also testified that he would not have hired legal and accounting professionals to assist in the audits had he known how he would be treated. Moreover, Hyatt stated that he incurred substantial costs that he would not otherwise have incurred by paying for professional representatives to assist him during the audits.

The only solution to such behavior by tax agencies is the “what’s good for the goose is good for the gander rule.” If a tax agency (or its employees) commits fraud against a taxpayer, the tax agency should be held liable. I urge California voters to rescind the blanket liability protection that tax agencies have. The actions of the FTB show it’s not warranted.

For Mr. Hyatt, the case will head back to Las Vegas for another trial (most likely next year) followed by, almost certainly, another appeal.

Zuckermans Sentenced; No Word on Fido & Lulu

September 17th, 2014

Earlier this year I reported on the case of Mathew and Sandra Zuckerman. The Zuckermans stopped filing and correctly paying taxes back in 1986. When you’re doing something illegal it’s best to keep a low profile. The Zuckermans eschewed that philosophy. Mr. Zuckerman became very successful in leading companies through reverse IPOs. They owned two expensive homes: one in Colorado and one in California. That’s not keeping a low profile.

But what drew my attention to the case was a strategy that probably will never be tried again. No, it wasn’t the interlocking web of corporate entities Mr. Zuckerman created to hide his transgressions; that’s been done countless times before and will be done countless times in the future. Rather, Mr. Zuckerman put his dog and cat on the board of one of his companies. Unfortunately, members of a board of directors must be human: Fido and Lulu don’t qualify.

The Zuckermans pled guilty earlier this year. Yesterday, the day of reckoning arrived. Mr. Zuckerman received 24 months at ClubFed and must make restitution of $693,706; he also will serve three years of supervised release once he’s released from ClubFed. Mrs. Zuckerman received 36 months of probation. Of Mr. Zuckerman’s restitution, Mrs. Zuckerman was held to be jointly liable for $112,511. Fido and Lulu escaped prosecution.

Hyatt Decision Due Tomorrow (Thursday)

September 17th, 2014

The long running battle between Gilbert Hyatt and the Franchise Tax Board of California here in Nevada is likely nearing a conclusion. The Nevada Supreme Court listed the Hyatt case in their list of Forthcoming Opinions. Given that the FTB’s liability is up to $500,000,000 (if the lower court decision is upheld), this is a very important decision.

For those unfamiliar with the case, Gilbert Hyatt moved to Nevada from California. He moved in October 1991, but the FTB held that he didn’t move until April 1992, conveniently after Mr. Hyatt received significant income from patents he held. The FTB assessed tax, penalties, interest, and the civil fraud penalty.

In January 1998, Mr. Hyatt filed a lawsuit against the FTB, alleging that the FTB committed torts during the audit, including invasion of privacy, outrageous conduct, abuse of process, fraud, and negligent misrepresentation. The FTB challenged that Mr. Hyatt could sue the tax agency; California law immunizes the FTB from lawsuits. That portion of the case went to the US Supreme Court; the US Supreme Court ruled in 2003 that he could sue the tax agency.

The case was heard in 2008 here in Las Vegas. Mr. Hyatt won and was awarded $138.8 million of actual damages and $250 million in punitive damages. (Including interest, the amount that Mr. Hyatt is due is up to $500 million.) The FTB appealed; that appeal was heard in May 2012 by the Nevada Supreme Court. (Nevada does not have intermediate courts of appeal.) That’s the decision that will be released tomorrow. I will report on the decision tomorrow (Thursday) afternoon.

From Owning a Party Mansion to Partying at ClubFed

September 14th, 2014

Claude Verbal II wasn’t the most well liked owner of a home in North Raleigh, North Carolina. It seems that the 15,000 square foot mansion wasn’t used as a home; rather, it was a place to PARTY! To be fair, the parties appear to have been operated by Mr. Verbal’s ex-wife, Pamela Verbal. The local HOA probably has nothing to worry about as far as any additional parties. Besides an injunction issued by a local court, Mr. Verbal will need to sell the mansion (if it hasn’t already been sold).

You see, Mr. Verbal pleaded guilty earlier this year to a $6,460,962 tax and health care fraud scheme. He was sentenced last week to 135 months (11 years and 3 months) at ClubFed along with full restitution for one count of conspiracy to defraud the United States, one count of aiding and assisting the preparation of false tax returns, one count of healthcare fraud, and one count of money laundering.

In the tax fraud scheme, Mr. Verbal owned a tax preparation franchise with ten locations in North Carolina. Mr. Verbal and his employees offered customers a unique bonus system: If the return was falsified and the client paid cash, he would get a much larger refund. Mr. Verbal and his employees utilized familiar methods: fake dependents and phony credits. Mr. Verbal bought stolen identities so his scheme could continue.

It’s how the scheme was uncovered that makes this quite interesting. From the DOJ press release:

In November 2010, one of Verbal’s employees informed a U.S. probation officer of the fraudulent practices at NBT’s location on Fayetteville Street. The probation officer informed Verbal of this fraud and he falsely denied knowledge of it. Afterward, Verbal took steps to keep the profitable Fayetteville Street location open and to continue operating as usual, but to also further distance himself from the fraudulent practices. In order to do this, Verbal transferred the electronic filing privileges for that NBT branch to a nominee. Verbal and others jointly persuaded a relative of Verbal who allowed Verbal to use their name to apply for new electronic filing privileges for the Fayetteville Street location. In exchange, Verbal and his wife paid the relative $10,000, and the relative had no role in operating NBT, no professional tax experience and no knowledge of the fraud that was occurring at NBT.

But that’s not all. Besides owning a tax preparation firm, Mr. Verbal owned a Medicaid health provider in North Carolina. Mr. Verbal engaged in healthcare fraud, including changing diagnosis codes, inflating the number of clients treated, billing for services not rendered, and faking assessments.

From both schemes, Mr. Verbal used the proceeds to buy luxury goods and possessions, such as his party house in North Raleigh. Many of the items acquired by Mr. Verbal were seized during the investigation, including nearly $766,000 in cash and a 7-carat diamond ring.

As a reminder to anyone who is offered the chance to get a larger refund by paying in cash and having phony items added to his or her tax return: Don’t do it! If it sounds too good to be true it probably is. Not only is knowingly participating in such activities a crime, sooner or later you could get a “Dear Soon to be Audited Taxpayer” letter from the IRS.

It Never Works, But They Keep Doing It

September 14th, 2014

“It amazes me that people who withhold payroll taxes and don’t remit them to the IRS can get away with it.” That’s what my friend, Scott Harker, EA, said to me this morning. Yet time and again I read stories where someone decides to abscond with payroll taxes meant for the IRS. It only works until you get caught, and you’re almost always caught.

Take William Danielczyk, Jr., of Oakton, Virginia. If that name rings a bell, it’s because you remember that Mr. Danielczyk was previously sent to ClubFed for two years for illegally funneling just under $200,000 to Hillary Clinton’s political campaigns back in 2006 and 2008. (Mrs. Clinton had no knowledge of the illegal campaign contributions.) When he was sentenced he remarked, “I’ve always tried to lead by example, and I obviously didn’t do that here.”

It turns out that the campaign finance crimes were small in dollars in comparison to his payroll tax crimes. From mid-2009 through 2011, Mr. Danielczyk didn’t send $2,232,781 to the IRS from employee tax withholdings. He also didn’t send employees’ contributions to 401(k) retirement plans to the custodians; that loss was $186,263. Even after he was indicted for the campaign finance law violations he continued with this scheme! That’s chutzpah.

At least the money went to some good purchases. From the Department of Justice press release:

According to court records, instead of paying Innovative’s employment taxes and pension plan contributions, Danielczyk made a variety of purchases from company accounts. Those purchases included $505,871 for the use of an executive suite in the FedEx Field football stadium in Landover, Maryland, along with $40,000 to sponsor the Virginia Gold Cup, a series of Steeple Chase horse races held in northern Virginia.

Mr. Danielczyk was sentenced to eighteen months at ClubFed, three years of supervised release, and must make restitution of $1.6 million to the IRS.

A hint to anyone who wants to try robbing from payroll withholding: Don’t do it! The IRS investigates 100% of these violations. And it’s a certainty that such malefactions will be discovered–sooner or later (likely sooner) someone will be claiming the withheld payroll tax and the IRS won’t match it (as you took it).

If you’re an employer, this is a reminder that you should use EFTPS to verify that your payroll tax withholding has made it to the IRS. If you use employee leasing (aka PEOs), you have to find another method to verify the withholdings but you should do so. Paying payroll tax once is bad enough; paying it twice is really bad.

Let’s Give Lois Lerner Credit Where Credit Is Due

September 10th, 2014

We don’t know with certainty what Lois Lerner’s role is in the IRS scandal. However, let’s give credit to Ms. Lerner in exposing something that definitely is wrong with the IRS.

It turns out that Ms. Lerner was upset with an unnamed IRS employee who was paid $138,136 a year and was doing “nothing.” The Washington Examiner reported on this in an article on a letter written by House Ways & Means Subcommittee on Oversight Chairman Charles Boustany (R-LA) to IRS Commissioner John Koskinen. Here’s an excerpt of the Examiner’s article:

In a 2011 email recently uncovered by the committee, Lerner wrote to colleagues that she “learned than [an] employee who is assigned to a special project has spent most of the last year doing nothing and reporting to her manager on on timesheets that she has been working on the project full time.” The worker was paid $106,263-$138,136.

Lerner said that “We can’t do anything” about the worker, though some argued for termination, explained Boustany’s letter. Instead, the unnamed worker was given a lower performance rating.

While this will do nothing to help the IRS’s reputation, kudos to Ms. Lerner for trying to stop such activities. As for Congressman Boustany’s letter to Commissioner Koskinen, I’m not holding my breath for any results.