Administration of Claims

Happy New Year! The new year brings a time to reflect back on the past year, on things that went well, things that went not-so-well, and how you would like to do things going forward.  In the spirit of looking back over the last year, the IRS Whistleblower Office released its FY 2017 Annual Report to Congress earlier than usual this year, right after New Year’s. 

In FY 2017, the Whistleblower Office paid $33,979,873 in awards (prior to the sequestration reduction), which was less than the $61,390,910 paid in FY 2016 and the $103,486,236 paid in FY 2015.  The $34 million of awards was spread across a total of 242 awards, 27 of these awards were paid under §7623(b).  The total number of awards paid in FY 2017 falls between the 418 awards paid in FY 2016 and the 99 awards paid in FY 2015. The number of awards paid in FY 2016 was extraordinarily high due to a push by the Whistleblower Office to resolve a backlog of old claims that would be categorized as falling under §7623(a).  Disregarding the number from FY 2016, which is largely attributable to the resolution of the backlog, the IRS Whistleblower Office has continued to grow the number of awards it pays each year.  But more importantly, the number of awards paid under §7623(b) increased by 50% over the number paid in FY 2016.  (The IRS Whistleblower Office paid 18 awards under §7623(b) in FY 2016, which was virtually the same as the 19 awards paid in FY 2015.)

FY2017 Table 1.png

IRS Whistleblower Program has been a success for the IRS and tax administration as shown by the fact that only 6% of claims closed in FY 2017 (down from 7% in FY 2016) were closed because the IRS audited the issue and made no change to the taxpayer’s position.  That means if the IRS acts on a whistleblower’s information there is a very low probability that the IRS will not make an adjustment.  This statistic should be even lower than 6% because the IRS includes adjustments that are made but were non-Title 26 Collected Proceeds – like FBAR penalties within the same statistic.

Nevertheless, the IRS Whistleblower Office should be cautious that the program does not begin to stagnate.  Between the decrease in new submissions, the fact that nearly all new submissions are related to Small Business/Self-Employed Division issues, and the average time to process a claim for an award remained largely unchanged in FY 2017 from FY 2016, which was an increase from FY 2015; the IRS may have trouble making large award payments down the road if the IRS does not address some of the issues within the program and work to build additional support for the program in the operating divisions of the IRS.

The Annual Report made clear that when providing information to the IRS Whistleblower Office, whistleblowers need to ensure that their submissions are specific and credible because more than half (57%) of the claims closed in FY 2017 were closed because the Whistleblower Office found that the allegations in the claim were not specific, credible, or were speculative in nature.  A knowledgeable attorney can help put together a clear and concise submission that will give the whistleblower the best chance of receiving an award.

One final note: The Ferraro Law Firm again accounted for 22% of the §7623(b) awards (by number and by value) of the awards paid by the Whistleblower Office in FY 2017.  We are proud to be seeing success for our clients and happy to see the IRS recognizing the important contribution made by whistleblowers.

Trump/Mnuchin

In our experience the IRS is a peculiarly apolitical organization – despite the Lerner email scandal and the targeting of conservative groups for noncompliant tax exempt status claims, almost every position in the IRS is not motivated by or responsive to political considerations – but when we have a change of administration it means we have a new political people in the top tier at the Treasury Department, which runs the IRS.   Yesterday the new administration’s appointee as Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin was confirmed by the Senate, so the question you may all be asking is: as current or prospective whistleblowers, what does that mean to us?

Senator Grassley had the opportunity to question the nominee about his thoughts on the Program, and here is what he just said about Mnuchin:

As the author of the provisions improving the incentives for whistleblowers to come forward about large dollar tax fraud, I was glad to receive a commitment from Mr. Mnuchin in support of a strong IRS whistleblower function.   Whistleblowers have helped the IRS recover $3.4 billion that otherwise would have been lost to fraud.  Cracking down on big dollar tax fraud is a matter of fairness to the vast majority of taxpayers who pay what they owe.  The IRS has made progress in working with whistleblowers, but there’s more work to be done.

Previously Grassley said this about the nominee after his Finance Committee nomination hearing: “Mr. Mnuchin gave his assurance that he’ll work with me if confirmed to support tax fraud whistleblowers.” It is a positive sign to whistleblowers that we have such a show of commitment by the incoming administration.  This statute isn’t going to be eliminated, and if anything whistleblowers can expect to see the statute strengthened in the coming years with cooperation by Treasury leadership.

“Support” from the new administration has to be tangible and results oriented to have any meaning.  Words are not enough.  For starters, the leaders at Treasury needs to work with and instruct their attorneys in the office of Chief Counsel to not take legal positions which damage the legitimacy of the Program.  For example, not resisting whistleblowers discovery requests for information from the taxpayer’s administrative file which would show how their information was used beyond what happened to the in the Whistleblower Office’s file; not limiting collected proceeds to be only those monies collected under Title 26 despite rulings by the Tax Court opinions to the contrary; and reconsidering sequestration on awards.  Most importantly the new Treasury leadership should through proper channels instruct IRS operational personnel take a long hard look at allegations of tax underpayments and fraud reported by whistleblowers and treat these losses to the government as the serious threat that they are.  Such claims of large scale malfeasance should not to be taken lightly and dismissed without proper due diligence.  Just because there is a serious limitation on resources at the IRS it does not mean that it is smart or proper to do less with whistleblower claims, to the contrary the data showing the higher return on agent time used in whistleblower cases suggests that the IRS should spend more time prosecuting whistleblower claims because they are one of the most efficient ways to use those precious resources.  Finally, “support” by the new administration is best shown by one thing: putting their money where their mouth is by timely paying awards to whistleblowers.

Today the Treasury Inspector General released a Report titled “The Whistleblower Program Helps Identify Tax Noncomplicane; However, Improvements Are Needed to Ensure That Claims Are Processed Appropriately and Expeditiously” about the IRS Whistleblower Program.  It contained some interesting statistical analysis of various processes relating to the inner workings of the Program but a quote from page 7 of the Report stuck out:

[A] majority of claim closures in FYs 2015 and 2016 (83 and 85 percent, respectively) are rejected or denied before going to an operating division field group for an investigation or examination, with only a small portion (2 percent each year) resulting in an award. Most claims were rejected because the allegations were not specific enough for the IRS to take action or denied because the allegation was below the threshold to justify resources for compliance action.

We understand that about 85% of the submissions that the IRS Whistleblower Office receives are pro se filings, and the problem is that often those claims are speculative or are not developed enough for the IRS to use them as a basis for taking action.  Of the remaining 15% on which the IRS does take action and passes the whistleblower’s information to the field agents for examination, approximately 2 out of every 15 are getting an award.   We believe a whistleblower’s odds of getting an award can be significantly higher [than 13.333%] for a thoroughly vetted submission with good facts and good law that are clearly laid out.  The hurdle of getting the IRS to take action in the first place is certainly a high one but then you have to deliver your information in a way that helps them win their case.

The TIGTA Report spent a lot of time looking at the procedures for the debriefing intake and the claim rejection processes, but in our view that is not the most material weakness of the IRS Whistleblower Program.  The biggest weakness is that under the current claim processing system it is still far too easy for the IRS field examination divisions to simply walk away from a good case even when the facts and the law are on their side.  Often people have a difficult time convincing the IRS to take even a slam dunk case, no matter how much it costs taxpayers if they give it up.  Our mission is to set forth a whistleblower’s information in such a way that it not only convinces the IRS to take action, but it forms the solid foundation of a winning case once they do decide to take action.

Today the Tax Court released its opinion in Whistleblower 22716-13W v. Commissioner, holding that FBAR civil penalties are not “additional amounts” within the meaning of section 7623(b)(5)(B), and they are not “assessed, collected, … [or] paid in the same manner as taxes”; therefore, FBAR payments must be excluded in determining whether the $2,000,000 “amount in dispute requirement” has been satisfied. 

This case appears to be the continuation of the saga of Whistleblower 22231-12W, whose petition to the Tax Court was dismissed for lack of jurisdiction because the IRS had not yet made a determination regarding his case.  However, on September 6, 2013, the IRS Whistleblower Office issued a final determination letter informing the whistleblower that his claim relating to Taxpayer 1 had been denied.  The letter stated that the claim had been denied because (1) the Government had obtained complete information about Taxpayer 1’s offshore accounts directly from the Swiss bank, without any assistance from petitioner; and (2) petitioner in any event could not qualify for a nondiscretionary award because his claim did not meet the $2,000,000 threshold in section 7623(b)(5)(B).  Petitioner petitioned the Tax Court for review of this determination.   Respondent moved for summary judgment on the basis of petitioner’s alleged failure to satisfy section 7623(b)(5)(B).

Judge Lauber’s opinion in this case gives a history of the Bank Secrecy Act, and FBAR penalties, and how enforcement of the Bank Secrecy Act came to be delegated to the IRS.  From there the case moves on to an analysis of the language of section 7623(b)(5)(B), and specifically the meaning of “additional amounts.”  The opinion traces the meaning of “additional amounts” throughout the Internal Revenue Code and how the Tax Court has interpreted this phrase in the past.  The Court also looked to Williams v. Commissioner, where the Court ruled that FBAR penalties were not additional amounts for purposes of determining Tax Court jurisdiction to hear deficiency and CDP cases.  Judge Lauber concludes that “additional amounts” as used in section 7623(b)(5)(B) means civil penalties set forth in chapter 68, subchapter A, and FBAR penalties are not among the tax penalties enumerated in that portion of the code.

It is interesting that the Court has taken the time to differentiate “additional amounts” in collected proceeds from the “additional amounts” in the monetary threshold.  We look forward to additional opinions weighing in on the definition of collected proceeds.  Even if FBAR penalties are ultimately found to be part of collected proceeds, whistleblowers will need to reach the $2,000,000 threshold of section 7623(b)(5)(B) based on tax, penalties, interest, additions to tax, and additional amounts.  Judge Lauber ended the opinion noting that the petitioner may be correct that section 7623 would offer stronger incentives to whistleblowers if FBAR civil penalties were treated like tax liabilities for purposes of deterring eligibility for nondiscretionary awards under section 7623(b)(5)(B), and might more effectively advance the objectives that Congress envisioned for it.  “But if this is a gap in the statute, it is a gap that only Congress, and not this Court, can fill.”

Nina Olson, the Taxpayer Advocate, and the staff at the Taxpayer Advocate Service (TAS) work tirelessly to aid taxpayers in resolving issues with how the IRS interacts with taxpayers.  Every year the TAS files an annual report to Congress.  This year’s annual report includes a look at the IRS Whistleblower Program as Most Serious Problem # 13.  The report states:

Despite the increased willingness of whistleblowers to come forward, the effectiveness of the whistleblower program has been undermined by conditions such as:

  1. The length of time it takes to resolve whistleblower cases, which averaged almost six years for awards paid in 2014;
  2. Statutory provisions that impede the IRS from communicating effectively and regularly with whistleblowers; and
  3. The lack of statutory protection of whistleblowers from retaliation.

The report gives a detailed description of the problems that the Taxpayer Advocate Service found with the operation of the whistleblower program.  I recommend reading this section of the report as validation of observations that we have all made over the years.  The discussion of the problems found includes some recommendations that the IRS could make on its own, which the Taxpayer Advocate Service believes would improve the administration of the whistleblower program.

The report provides clear balanced recommendations that would both protect taxpayer information and allow better communications with whistleblowers.  The report provides:

Implicit in the response is the IRS’s position that once a whistleblower submits a claim, further communication with the whistleblower is appropriate only after the IRS determines to make an award (unless the IRS needs information from the whistleblower in the meantime). In view of the lengthy timeframes involved, this approach seems inconsistent with the IRS’s announced support for the whistleblower program and its commitment to finding ways of improving communication with whistleblowers.

Neither IRC § 6103 nor any other statute impedes the IRS and Treasury from defining a whistleblower “administrative proceeding” as beginning with the filing of Form 211, and the IRS and Treasury could revise the regulations under IRC § 7623 to allow annual or bi-annual notifications to whistleblowers with basic information, such as whether the claim resulted in an audit, whether an audit has been concluded, whether proceeds from the audit have been collected, and an estimated time within which the WO expects to send a preliminary award. This would allow the WO to retain significant discretion about what it will disclose and how early. As the WO develops procedures for making periodic updates, the IRS and Treasury could update the applicable regulations to define what and when the WO will disclose. However, these changes should not be adopted unless the appropriate regulations (whether under IRC § 6103 or IRC § 7623) are also revised to require whistleblowers who wish to receive status updates to execute confidentiality agreements that carry the statutory penalties imposed by IRC §§ 7431, 7213, and 7213A, and subject them to the safeguarding requirements of IRC § 6103(p).

In addition to describing the most serious problems that taxpayers face in their interactions with the IRS, the annual report serves as an opportunity for TAS to propose new legislation to Congress.  The report makes the following legislative recommendations:

  1. Enact anti-retaliation legislation to protect tax whistleblowers.
  2. Make unauthorized disclosures of return information by whistleblowers subject to penalties of IRC §§ 7431, 7213, and 7213A, substantially increase the amount of such penalties, and make whistleblowers subject to the safeguarding requirements of IRC § 6103(p).
  3. Amend IRC §§ 7623 and 6103 to provide consistent treatment of recovered Foreign Account Compliance Act (FATCA) and Report of Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts (FBAR) penalties for whistleblower award purposes.

The suggestions would serve to address several of the long standing problems that continue to cause pause for potential whistleblowers as they weigh whether to provide information to the IRS.  If these suggestions are implemented the whistleblowers would allow the IRS whistleblower program to operate more similarly to other whistleblower programs with protections that would be on par with the SEC, which can cover IRS whistleblowers in certain situations, and allow for similar updates and communications regarding the status of the claim.  These changes would greatly improve the program and entice many whistleblowers that have been waiting on the sidelines with information to come forward.

*Footnotes have been omitted from all quotes from the TAS Annual Report.

Today the United States Government Accountability Office (“GAO”) released a report on the IRS Whistleblower Office titled “IRS WHISTLBLOWER PROGRAM – Billions Collected, but Timeliness and Communication Concerns May Discourage Whistleblowers” for which we were interviewed last year.  Communication with whistleblowers is certainly an issue with the program almost by default due to the taxpayer information confidentiality requirements imposed on the IRS by section 6103 of the Internal Revenue Code, and the report does hit a few hot button topics including some issues with timeliness of awards and the processing of submissions, but as with any report there were fertile grounds for improvement that were not covered.

The GAO Report describes more than $315 million of awards paid between October 1, 2010 and June 30, 2015 on $1.882 billion of collected proceeds, which shows that the program has been successful in raising more revenue for the government.  However, the reported statistics of claims denied does not show just how much additional revenue the IRS is leaving on the table by not bringing enforcement actions on more whistleblower claims.  It also shows as we already know that the IRS is paying out the required award percentages (between 15 and 30%) to whistleblowers on those collected proceeds, notwithstanding the effects of sequestration.   We believe though that the IRS should reconsider its award determination process of starting from the bottom of the 15-30 percent range and working their way up, and instead use the middle of the range as the starting point and vary from that number based on the positive or negative factors of a whistleblower’s contribution in each case.  The IRS is apparently worried about consistency in applying award percentages to whistleblowers with high-dollar claims in the future because they expect the volume of those cases to be increasing, which is at least a hint at some good news in the future.

Because the IRS does not track the expiration of the period of limitations on refunds in every whistleblower case that resulted in the payment of additional tax, the IRS is setting itself up to fail to properly pay out awards in a timely fashion.  Let’s hope the GAO follow up Action Items pressure gets the IRS to utilize their E-TRAK system to better monitor this critical data so that in the future claims are paid out on a more timely basis.