We welcome guest blogger Scott A. Schumacher. Professor Schumacher is the Associate Dean of the University of Washington Law School and has for many years headed the low income taxpayer clinic there as well as its graduate tax program. Prior to joining the faculty at the University of Washington Professor Schumacher worked for several years in the Criminal Section of the Tax Division of the Department of Justice. His work in his prior life provides him with an insider’s view of the workings of criminal tax cases which he shares with us today. Some of us are old enough to remember a criminal tax case that ended the political career of Vice President Spiro Agnew. While President Trump’s taxes continue to be the focus of much discussion, Professor Schumacher explains why the recent news story does not signal anything of current tax significance. Usually we leave the discussion of criminal taxes to the excellent federal tax crimes blog written by Jack Townsend but the currency of the recent article concerning the taxes of the President’s family causes us to veer temporarily into a different procedural area. Keith
Earlier this month, the New York Times published an extensive expose on the tax strategies allegedly employed by President Trump and his family in the 1990s. New York State tax authorities quickly announced that they were beginning an investigation into these matters, and the typical political and media firestorm followed. Among the questions raised were: Can Trump be prosecuted for this conduct? Can both the State of New York and the U.S. government prosecute him for the same conduct? If he is continuing to engage in similar strategies, can he be prosecuted for tax crimes? Are Fred Trump and former Secretary of State Dean Acheson the same person?
As to the first question, there is virtually no chance of the conduct discussed in the New York Times article resulting in either a federal or New York State tax prosecution. Under federal law, the statute of limitations for tax evasion and other tax crimes is six years, and it’s five years under New York law. The statute begins to run from the last act of evasion, which generally means the filing of the tax return for the year at issue. As noted, all of the events discussed in the Times article occurred in the 1990s, and the statute of limitations has long since run on those years.
As to the second question, there is nothing that absolutely bars both a federal and state tax prosecution for the same tax year. The laws of separate sovereigns have been violated, and the conduct involves separate criminal conduct –the filing of two different tax returns. Hence, the Double-Jeopardy Clause is not implicated.
Nevertheless, parallel or sequential federal and state tax prosecutions are rare. Under the Department of Justice’s Petite Policy (named after Petite v. United States, 361 U.S. 529 (1960)), federal prosecutors will generally not bring a case following a prior state prosecution based on substantially the same acts. The purpose of the policy is to promote the efficient use of resources, to encourage federal and state cooperation, and to protect persons from multiple prosecutions and punishments for essentially the same conduct. The Petite Policy is followed by the Tax Division of DOJ, which must approve indictments for all federal crimes. As a result, it is extremely rare for a federal prosecution to follow a state prosecution in tax matters. In reality, even without a formal policy, given that there are so few tax prosecutions, if someone has been convicted by either a state or federal government, it is highly unlikely that another prosecution for essentially the same conduct would be brought. They have bigger fish (or at least other fish) to fry.
What if the conduct described in the Times article continues to today, couldn’t that form a successful tax prosecution? Without getting into the specifics of the alleged conduct, which is well beyond the scope of the PT Blog, such a prosecution is highly unlikely. The heart of any tax prosecution is the mental state that the government is required to prove – willfulness. Willfulness is defined as an “intentional violation of a known legal duty.” Thus, the taxpayer and putative defendant must know what the law provides and intentionally violate the law. In this regard, reliance on the advice of a professional generally constitutes a complete defense to the element of willfulness.
Given the complexity of the tax laws, it is difficult for prosecutors to prove that someone who was advised by lawyers and accountants knew that their conduct violated the law and intentionally engaged in that conduct. Despite the President’s claim that he understands the complex tax laws better than anyone who has run for president, he has always been well represented by competent tax professionals.
Okay, nobody asked the final question, but Google it.