Commissioner Koskinen Asked to Resign

IRS Commissioner, John Koskinen, has been on the job for only a couple years, but he was brought in at a very difficult time for the agency. He was appointed by Pres. Obama and given the task of cleaning things up at the IRS, particularly in regard to the scandal involving targeting of Tea Party groups. Now he has lawmakers calling for his resignation because of the way he has handled the debacle. I bet there are days he regrets accepting the assignment.

The most outspoken republicans insist that Koskinen lied about the missing emails. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) is on record saying that Koskinen was in possession of the emails, and then after they were subpoenaed, his agency destroyed them. Many now want him to resign, and if he doesn’t, they are threatening worse. They are throwing around words like “contempt,” “obstruction of justice,” and “impeachment.”

President Obama claims that there was “not even a smidgen of corruption” within the IRS, but everybody knows this isn’t true. He needs to be a little more careful with his words. The IRS is huge and people are imperfect, arrogant, and greedy. How can he say there isn’t a smidgen of corruption? He doesn’t know that. All that really means is he has had meetings with those that run the agency who say there’s no corruption, who have had meetings with high level management who say there’s no corruption, who have had meetings with lower level management, etc. There is no way any clear-thinking adult could swallow such a broad statement as that.

According to Chaffetz, there are still at least 5 open investigations into the targeting scandal, including that of TIGTA and the Department of Justice. I, for one, must admit that I am a little surprised that the news of this scandal hasn’t fizzled yet. I think it speaks to how passionate we are, as US citizens, about allegations of corruption within our government.

 
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Taxpayer Advocate Says IRS Needs to Shift Focus Away from Collections

National Taxpayer Advocate, Nina Olson, recently submitted her mid-year report to Congress.  It is nothing incredibly new, I suppose, except that IRS’ 2015 tax season numbers are completely off the charts (and not in a good way).  Here are some key points:

  • 8.8 million dropped calls due to switchboard overload
  • only 37% of customer service calls were actually answered
  • average hold time was 23 minutes
  • less than 10% of customer service calls answered during peak of tax season

Olson’s preface is a pleasure to read.  Its brilliant, and yet so simple.  She acknowledges the lack of funding that the IRS has had to deal with over the past few years, and she astutely points out that, while difficult, periods of famine (so to speak) can be healthy if they cause you (or an organization such as the IRS) to rethink its priorities and to rethink the way funds are allocated.  The operative phrase here is that it can be healthy.  In her own words:

But from a taxpayer perspective, I am concerned its long-term approach is headed in the wrong direction. First, the IRS continues to view itself as an enforcement agency first and a service agency second. Enforcement is important, of course, but it is a question of emphasis and self-definition. Second, the IRS’s vision of the future rests on a mistaken assumption that it can save dollars and maintain voluntary compliance by automating taxpayer service and issue resolution and getting out of the business of dealing with taxpayers directly in person or by phone.

What the IRS should do during this period of congressional distrust and resulting inadequate funding is examine every one of its underlying principles. In my view, it should transform itself as a tax agency from one that is designed around nabbing the small percentage of the population that actively evades tax to one that aims first and foremost to meet the needs of the overwhelming majority of taxpayers who are trying to comply with the tax laws.

The truth is, most people pay their taxes voluntarily, but the IRS has always been laser focused on collection and enforcement.  Olson is right.  As the IRS continues to put taxpayer service on the back burner, the whole idea of voluntary compliance becomes more tenuous.  And I don’t think Olson is saying that enforcement has no place in our tax system.  There will always be a need for enforcement.  But the focus needs to shift so that it is not the top priority.

One of my mentors taught me how to operate a well-balanced law practice.  He taught me to see it as both a service and a business, and to never lose sight of both.  If you focus too much on the business, then you do your clients a disservice.  And if you fail to give attention to the business aspects, then you won’t earn a decent living.

The IRS is really no different.  As Nina Olson said, they are too focused on the “business” of enforcement and the service side is suffering.  But the great thing about both a law practice and the IRS is, when you give enough attention to the service aspect so that the clients/taxpayers are satisfied, the revenue will come.

 
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Mastermind of IRS Phone Scam Gets 14 Year Prison Sentence

You would have to be living under a rock if you’re not aware of the pervasive IRS impersonation phone scams going around.  These scammers prey on the least-informed, most vulnerable people in society, convincing them that the IRS is on the brink of throwing them into prison for unpaid taxes when, in many cases, no taxes are owed.  Now at least one of the masterminds behind this, Sahil Patel (36), is going to be put away for 14 years.  Patel was sentenced a couple days ago in a U.S. District Court in New York for conspiring to extort, to impersonate government officials, and to commit wire fraud.

The government considers Patel one of the ringleaders in a scam that duped nearly 4,000 people out of a combined $20 million over the past two years.  However, this criminal group is obviously run by more than just Patel as the phone calls have not stopped since his conviction.

Maybe 14 years seems like a long time to you for a crime that doesn’t involve taking a life, but this is what the district judge had to say about it:

The nature of this crime robbed people of their identities and their money in a way that causes people to fee that they have been almost destroyed.

He definitely wanted to “ensure adequate deterrence.”  Plus I don’t think it helped that Patel came across as an “unfriendly” witness.  He reportedly made some sexist comments about the women he hired to do the dirty work and how they were ignorant and gullible.  I know that 14 years seems like a heavy penalty, and you can’t really expect a higher level of severity, but I wonder if this will really deter the co-conspirators who appear to be keeping the scheme operational.  The rewards are so incredibly high for them and, at this point at least, the risks seem to be just low enough.

We can increase the risk by finding more of these guys, and I think the IRS, in cooperation with law enforcement, is doing the best they can.  We can reduce the reward by informing the public — and this is where I think they can improve.  I started this article by saying that one would have to be living under a rock to not be aware of these phone scams, but I don’t know if that is true.  As a tax attorney, I hear about this kind of thing all the time because I am dialed into tax news and events.  But is the average taxpayer getting the message?  I think IRS public service messages are focused on tax professionals.  Maybe there should be a broader kind of outreach through TV and radio.  I suppose there is a reason why they haven’t gone there; maybe they don’t want to freak everyone out.

 
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The first step in taxing space starts tomorrow in Sacramento

Have you ever thought about space travel? Or even being one of the first human colonists to Mars? If you have, you should also be prepared to pay a tax. Seriously. That’s right, with the developments in space exploration, the Franchise Tax Board (FTB) is preparing to develop a tax strategy for space travel and commerce.

Taxation strategy of the final frontier begins tomorrow in Sacramento during an interested parties meeting at the FTB’s mother ship. If you didn’t book your tax space voyage in time, you can still attend by phone by calling (877) 923-3149 at 10:00 a.m. Enter the participant pass code 2233420, followed by the # sign.

The official captain’s log for the meeting is to discuss possible regulatory efforts for the apportionment and allocation of income derived from space transportation activities, including the transportation of people or cargo into and from Space. I didn’t think it would be possible, but even the FTB can make this meeting sound boring.

According the news release issued by the FTB, during the upcoming initial meeting, FTB staff members will solicit input from industry and practitioners on issues that may arise in the application of a regulation on such space activities, including, but not limited to:

- How should space transportation activities be defined in a regulation?

- At what point should aircraft or space vehicles be considered as traveling into space?

- How should unsuccessful missions be treated?

- What apportionment factors should be used to apportion and allocate income from space transportation activities? How many apportionment factors should there be, and how should they be weighted? Launch factor, recovery factor, mileage factor, or some other factor?

- Should a regulatory effort address the potential for “nowhere income,” and if so, how should it be addressed?

- What issues might be encountered with combining space transportation activities with a taxpayer’s other trade or business activities?

- Should a regulatory effort distinguish between transporting cargo and people?

- Any other issues that industry believes FTB staff should consider.

Isn’t this exciting!? I do wonder however if a Foreign Bank and Financial Account Report (FBAR) will be required if life is found on Mars, and a human opens a bank account there? I suppose that’s a federal question and the July meeting, I further suppose, is limited California state tax matters.

 
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Stopping Interest on Proposed Liabilities

You may not know this unless you’ve been through it, but when the IRS makes proposed adjustments to your taxes, interest begins to accrue beginning on the tax return due date.  And it is an even lesser known fact that one can completely stop interest from accruing on proposed tax balances by making what is called a “remittance.”  There’s a special term for it because we’re talking about proposed liabilities (before anything has officially been assessed).  After taxes are assessed, it is simply called a payment.

Why would anyone want to make a remittance?  The primary reason for making a remittance is that the taxpayer plans on disputing the adjustment, which could take a long time (especially if taken through the appeals process), and the taxpayer could potentially be on the hook for quite a bit of interest.  Paying a remittance sufficient to cover the total tax, penalties, and accrued interest will stop interest from running on the date it is received.  And if the taxpayer is successful in getting the liability reduced, the IRS will either return the excess or apply it to other tax liabilities.

There are two types of remittances: a deposit and an advance payment.  If you clearly designate your payment as a deposit, the IRS must return it to you, upon request, unless the IRS has already applied it against an assessed liability.  You may even qualify for interest being paid to you for the time that the IRS held your funds.  To qualify, you must provide a written statement that includes the tax type, tax year, and a copy of the 30-day letter.  An advance payment, on the other hand, is treated just like a regular tax payment and will only be refunded to you if you make a valid claim for a refund.

This is all fully explained in IRS Notice 1016 (Feb. 2006) which is often included as an insert in various IRS correspondence.  Be careful not to confuse this process with the cessation of interest on assessed tax liabilities.  The procedures above apply to proposed liabilities only.  Who knows how many of my clients have received this insert and read the title only (“How to Stop Interest on Your Account”) and assumed there is a way to stop interest on their assessed liabilities without paying in full.  The IRS should probably modify the title of this insert so that it is absolutely clear.

 

 
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IRS Makes Plans with Private Sector to Curb Future Cyber Attacks

John Koskinen, Commissioner of the IRS, announced yesterday in a press conference that his agency is making plans to join forces with states and the entire private tax industry to combat cyber tax criminals like the ones who recently accessed taxpayer data through the “Get Transcript” application of the IRS website.  It’s the whole “it takes a village” concept applied to the ongoing battle to protect sensitive information on the internet. Government and industry plan to share information in ways they have never done before.

As a tax relief attorney, I don’t know a lot about computers and information technology.  If the top level guys at the IRS are IT ninjas, I’m probably a yellow belt noodle maker.  But commingling of IRS and private sector data makes me nervous, if that’s what they’re talking about doing.  I understand the desire to cooperate on this monumental task of stopping international cyber-criminal syndicates, but I feel like a little separation between public and private sector computer systems is healthy.  It seems to my naive mind that the more connected they are, in the event of a large-scale hack, the more likely we all go down together.

Here are a few nice words from Koskinen’s press conference:

[A]ny organization in the public or private sectors with IT systems and sensitive data faces a battle that seems to grow every day. The nation’s tax system is no different….No single organization can go it alone….None of us has a silver bullet to defeat this enemy….Working together we can achieve results that none of us, working alone, could accomplish.

Such an American thing to do, don’t you think?  Everyone joining forces and working together to defeat a common enemy and prevent a crisis.  I hope this is a step in the right direction and not just the IRS telling us what we want to hear.  The upside to all this for the IRS is that the next time their systems are compromised, maybe they can share the blame with businesses and states.

 
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Could the Latest IRS Data Breach have been Prevented?

The head of the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA), J. Russell George, testified before Congress today concerning the latest data breach at the IRS involving the “Get Transcript” application.  At this point we have some preliminary estimates on the damage done by this cyberattack: $39 million in fraudulent refunds.  And while George stopped short of saying that it all could have been prevented, he clearly did place some blame on the IRS.  Every year for the past several years, TIGTA has identified weaknesses in IRS security systems and makes “recommendations” for improving them.  As of March 2015, there were around 50 problem areas that still required attention.

The problem is that most of the time these “recommendations” are simply acknowledged by the IRS and taken into consideration, and nothing further.  In other words, the IRS will agree with the recommendation but not take the additional steps necessary to correct the problems.  I have been frustrated by this pattern for years and wished TIGTA somehow had the authority to require action, rather than kindly make recommendations.

IRS Commissioner, John Koskinen, was also present during George’s Congressional testimony and you can probably guess his response: budget cuts have hampered the IRS’ ability to combat cyber criminals and has kept the IRS from upgrading their computers and cybersecurity technology.  But after realizing that he had painted himself into a corner, he quickly tempered his remarks:

Not every problem is a budget problem, so I don’t want to wander around town every time we have a challenge saying, “Ah, if we had more money, we’d fix it,” … [t]his is a technology issue, not a budget [issue]…

The other part of his response was that implementing TIGTA’s recommendations would not have prevented this particular cyberattack.  It’s apples and oranges.  There was apparently something different about this data breach; it was very sophisticated and was orchestrated by multiple groups located in foreign countries.  According to Koskinen, it was a “sophisticated international syndicate” that was responsible for this latest data breach.  In other words, this was a tricky group of criminals and nothing could have stopped them.

Don’t believe it.  We know the IRS’ track record and they make a lot of mistakes.  There is a reason why they immediately took that part of their website down following last week’s announcement.  I am also very skeptical of the statement I keep seeing that the main IRS computer systems were not compromised in this cyberattack.  Remember when top IRS officials were certain that Lois Lerner’s emails were not recoverable?  There are times (and I see this on a daily basis in my communications with IRS rank & file) when the IRS does not appear to be all that familiar with its own systems.  We’ll have to keep a close eye on this story.  I would not be surprised if more information is discovered in the coming weeks that calls into question this statement about IRS’s main computer system.  I hope I am wrong.

 
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IRS Downplays Latest Data Breach

The IRS recently announced the unauthorized access into 100,000 tax accounts by cyber-criminals through the “Get Transcript” application on the IRS website.  Virtually every word in Commissioner Koskinen’s statement is calculated to either downplay the seriousness of the breach, deflect the blame, or put a Band-Aid on it, almost to the point that it causes increased suspicion.  It’s like when someone begins a statement with the words, “to be honest,” and you can’t help but wonder if they really are.  I will list everything the Commissioner said that could be taken that way and, of course, let you read between the lines:

  1. The information that allowed the criminals access was obtained from an outside source
  2. The crime was very sophisticated
  3. Access to “Get Transcript” is only obtained through a multi-layer authentication process
  4. The matter is under review by TIGTA and IRS’ Criminal Investigation division (CI)
  5. IRS main computer systems were not affected & remain secure
  6. Although there were 100,000 successful data breach attempts, there were another 100,000 that were unsuccessful
  7. All 200,000 affected taxpayer accounts will get letters from the IRS explaining what has happened
  8. IRS is offering free credit monitoring to those whose accounts were successfully accessed
  9. “Get Transcript” application has been shut down temporarily

And then there was the obligatory and generic “make-them-feel-good” statement:

[T]he IRS takes the security of taxpayer data extremely seriously, and we are working aggressively to protect affected taxpayers and continue to strengthen our protocols.

I totally understand the need to keep the comments positive in this kind of situation.  Any corporation would do the same sort of damage control in the form of some similar carefully worded, lawyer-drafted statement.  We definitely don’t want panic spreading across the nation in response to something like this.  But we are not stupid either.  If this data breach were really as benign as they want us to believe then why did they take the application down?  As much as the IRS has tried to deflect the blame for the data breach, I think they know that there are ways to tighten up security.  Nothing spells this out more clearly than the fact that the IRS immediately deactivated the application to fix it and make it more secure.

 
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Clinton Foundation Under Fire for Tax Errors

Filing an amended tax return is normally not that big of a deal.  It is not uncommon for folks to make mistakes or leave out information on their Form 1040 personal income tax filing.  To amend a previously filed Form 1040, you need to complete a “1040x.”  If you want to make corrections on multiple tax years, you need a separate 1040x for each year and you need to mail them in separate envelopes to ensure they are processed correctly.  The basic structure of a 1040x is pretty straightforward: Column A shows the figures as reported on your original 1040, Column B shows the corrected figures, and Column C shows the difference between the two.  Furthermore, barring other relevant facts, the filing of a 1040x does not automatically put you into a high audit risk group.

The problem with Hillary Clinton and her foundation is there are a few “other relevant factors” that have placed their actions in the spotlight (catch up on the story here).  For one, we’re talking about million dollar mistakes, meaning they put “zero,” when the correct number was something in the tens of millions of dollars range.  Kind of hard to swallow, right?  And similar “mistakes” were made three years in a row.  In the words of charity law experts:

It [is] not remarkable for a charity to refile an erroneous return once in a while, but for a large, global charity to refile three or four years in a row [is] highly unusual.

Now House republicans are calling for an IRS investigation.  Most letters to Commissioner John Koskinen would probably be ignored or referred out to a different IRS department in typical IRS style, but I’m guessing this one will get adequate attention.

 
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Board of Equalization is not of fan of Denny’s in California’s central valley

Have you been to one of the Denny’s operated by Abdul Halim? He operates three Denny’s restaurants located in Lathrop, Manteca, and Stockton. If you have a craving for a Moons Over My Hammy and live in the California’s central valley, you may soon be out of luck.

California’s Board of Equalization recently publicized its version of a perp walk. Abdul Halim, of Tracy, California will serve 10 years formal probation, perform 3,500 hours of community service, and pay $790,428 in restitution for pleading guilty to two felony and one misdemeanor count of sales tax evasion. The ordered restitution includes the sales tax, penalties, and interest owed to the BOE.

California’s Board of Equalization is charged with the duty of collecting and enforcing payment of California sales tax. BOE Investigators determined that Mr. Halim failed to pay nearly $525,000 in sales tax collected from Denny’s customers between 2007 and 2011.

If you need help fighting the BOE in California’s central valley or in the greater Sacramento area, call our law firm for a free consultation. We may be able to help save your business and keep you from being the next “perp” publicized by the BOE.

 
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