If there was ever a question whether IRS Commissioner, John Koskinen, believed in the IRS Whistleblower Program, that question was answered affirmatively in his remarks before the Taxpayers Against Fraud Education Fund.  At one point, Koskinen even referred to the information provided by whistleblowers as “a godsend.”  The remarks, given September 15th in Washington D.C., focused on IRS support of the whistleblower program and, of course, budget concerns.

Notably, Koskinen acknowledged concerns about the pace of whistleblower award payouts and said that he expects the pace of awards to pick up in the coming year.  To back up that prediction, Koskinen pointed to his decision to increase staffing for the whistleblower program by more than 70 percent even in the face of tight budget constraints.  Moreover, Koskinen said that the additional 31 employees will “help us continue implementing the 2006 law and working to increase the pace of award payouts.”  Added to this, Koskinen said that the delegation order issued in August, which allows smaller awards to be approved by a senior manager in the whistleblower office, should help pick up the pace of award payouts because everything doesn’t have to flow through to the Director’s office. 

Koskinen also praised the IRS Whistleblower Office and Director Steve Whitlock for paying out over $186 million in awards and collecting more than $1 billion based on whistleblower information over the last three fiscal years.  Professing his support for the program, Koskinen said:  

“By helping the IRS improve tax compliance, the whistleblower program also helps to ensure the integrity and fairness of our tax system.” 

He also noted that while being a whistleblower is not always supported in our society, “if people are cheating on their taxes, it is a public service to let us know.”

Understandably, Koskinen closed his remarks by voicing his concern over the decreased IRS budget he has to work with.  The House passed legislation that would reduce the IRS budget by more than $1 billion below 2014’s budget, forcing the IRS to make “extremely difficult choices on both services and enforcement.”  Specifically, Koskinen said that if the House’s budget were enacted, the IRS would face “a very serious shortfall in personnel, in taxpayer services, in enforcement, and in information technology.”  That shortfall makes the assistance of tax whistleblowers that much more important to successful enforcement actions. Tax Partner, Scott Knott’s comments on Comissioner Koskinen’s speech appear in a recent Tax Analysts article in which he emphasizes that whistleblower information is key to efficient IRS enforcement as supported by data in a TIGTA study

 

John Koskinen, President Obama’s nominee for Commissioner of the IRS, testified today before the Senate Finance Commitee at a hearing on his nomination.  As part of his testimony, Koskinen laid out his plans to “make the IRS the most effective, well-run, and admired agency in government.”  His comments were in large part, a recognition of IRS funding troubles, staffing shortages, and the loss of the public’s trust.  Seemingly eager to meet these challenges, Koskinen said that if nominated, he would turn the agency around by regaining the public trust and improving employee morale.  He added that “the realistic goal is to find problems quickly, fix them promptly, make sure they stay fixed, and be transparent about the entire process.”  To accomplish this goal, Koskinen said that it is important to listen to the front line employees and also others who are likley to know about the challenges the agecy faces.  Koskinen added that “[T]he IRS benefits from the information and perspective generated by the Office of the Taxpayer Advocate and the Whistleblower Office.”

Koskinen’s mention of the Whistleblower Office at the hearing and acknowledgement of the value it adds to the IRS bodes well for IRS whistleblowers going forward.  Perhaps Koskinen is acting on Senator Grassley’s letter, requesting him to embrace the IRS Whistleblower program. In any case, Koskinen is expected to be confirmed as the next head of the IRS, and his view of the Whistleblower Office as an asset to the IRS is good news for tax whistleblowers.

Last week Senator Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) wrote a letter to John Koskinen, former chairman of Freddie Mac, congratulating him on his nomination as the Commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service.  After congratulations were out of the way, Senator Grassley got right down to business by asking for Koskinen’s help in encouraging the IRS to use the “tools” it has been given to efficiently collect revenue.  The letter read like an offer to work as a team, with Grassley listing problem areas in IRS enforcement and asking Koskinen for his support, thoughts and feedback.  Specifically, Grassley emphasized his displeasure with the way the IRS has treated the private debt collectors program (PDC) and the IRS whistleblower program, asking Koskinen to reinstate the PDC and to “review the work and role of the IRS Whistleblower Office.”

In the letter, Grassley stated that “before increasing taxes on the millions of law-abiding Americans who voluntarily comply with the tax law, Treasury and IRS should make every effort to collect the billions of dollars in taxes that currently go uncollected.” To that point, Grassley’s frustration with the IRS and Treasury came through in the letter as he noted, “Over the past decade I have sought to provide the IRS with additional tools to track down tax cheats and collect funds through the enactment of the Private Debt Collection program and the expansion of the IRS whistleblower program.  Unfortunately, both programs have been fought every step of the way by some within Treasury and IRS who have an ideological disposition to oppose any program that seeks to utilize “private” or non-government resources to reduce the burden on the IRS.”

Grassley pointed out the success that the whistleblower program has had when it has been utilized by the IRS but said that “despite this success, many at the IRS, and especially Treasury and Chief Counsel have undermined the program and have discouraged whistleblowers from coming forward.” Grassley noted four problems: (1) payouts under the program are few and far between; (2) the IRS agents refuse to fully utilize the whistleblower’s knowledge and expertise; (3) whistleblowers “who put their whole career on the line frequently have to wait for years in the dark with no information as to whether or when the IRS will act on their claim”; and (4) Treasury is proposing regulations that will undercut the whistleblower program “with a shortsighted view that will save a penny today and lose the Treasury much more in the future due to discouraged whistleblowers not coming forward.”

Grassley pointed out that the Department of Justice has found success “to the tune of billions of dollars” that were recovered under the False Claims Act by working with whistleblowers and their representatives. He said that the IRS would find similar success by working with whistleblowers and their attorneys “if it would only get out of its own way.”  Grassley said that the fact that the IRS has delegated its authority to request whistleblower assistance solely to the IRS filed offices that have no understanding, guidance or support is “inexcusable.” Grassley even requested that the IRS implement a recognition program that would reward those IRS agents and examiners who work with whistleblowers to achieve “superior accomplishments.”

To finish up the letter, Grassley specifically asks Koskinen for several showings of support and follow-ups, including Koskinen’s commitment to affirm the Whistleblower Office’s authority to contract with whistleblowers and their representatives and to provide clear direction that contracting is “encouraged and should be a priority.”  Expressing the need for the IRS to reassure whistleblowers that they are valued and will be treated fairly, Grassley said that the proposed regulations would have the effect of discouraging whistleblowers and giving comfort to tax cheats. Grassley said “Time and time again the writers of the proposed regulation turn a blind eye to the plain meaning of the statute I wrote, the policy of the statute rewarding whistleblowers, and the precedence of the False Claims Act.”  Since the regulations would require Koskinen’s approval before made final, Grassley asks Koskinen to review the proposed regulations, Grassley’s correspondence with Treasury and the IRS on the matter, and the comments on the regulations by the leading whistleblower representatives.  Taking that concern a step further, Grassley asks Koskinen to provide him with his thoughts on the whistleblower program along with the steps that Koskinen intends to take to “ensure success is realized – particularly those steps you can take under your own authority such as improved communication with whistleblowers during the process – and your views on the proposed regulations – especially on the issues of “related action,” “collected proceeds,” and “planned and initiated.”

Clearly, Grassley’s frustration with the IRS and Treasury regarding the PDC and the whistleblower program will not be lost on Koskinen.  Grassley’s letter was not just a rant of everything that is wrong with the IRS and the whistleblower program, instead the letter is an invitation to improve the program and increase much needed revenue for the federal government.  What’s more, is that Grassley is giving the top IRS nominee a heads-up on whistleblower issues that will bring him success if they are solved.  Grassley is seeking Koskinen’s commitment to the tools and resources he put in place for the IRS but is also seeking his feedback and thoughts.  In this way, Grassley’s letter is largely a symbol of his support and commitment to the whistleblower program and he is simply asking for the same in return from Koskinen.  After all, as Grassley points out, “it is incumbent on the IRS to work smarter and utilize all the resources currently at its disposal.”