Articles Posted in TARP Funds Fraud

Today was a monentous day for those who believe in integrity in how taxpayer funds are treated.

President Obama signed into law today the Fraud Enforcement and Recovery Act of 2009, which makes important amendments to the country’s most important tool for fighting fraud, the False Claims Act.

Also important today, the Obama administration announced an expansion of DOJ’s health-care strike forces, which are designed to combat fraud in Medicare and Medicaid programs. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced the initiative.

Last Fall, and again in March 2009, whistleblower lawyer blog co-author Michael A. Sullivan had the pleasure of sitting down with IRS Whistleblower Office Director Steve Whitlock, for an in-depth interview on the “best practices” for lawyers in pursuing IRS Whistleblower claims for their whistleblower clients.

The interview has just been published in the April 2009 False Claims Act & Qui Tam Quarterly Review. It includes some of the important points made by Director Whitlock at the IRS Whistleblower Boot Camp sponsored by Taxpayers Against Fraud in March, 2009, about which we have written previously.

The interview covers the progress of the IRS Whistleblower Office since it was established in early 2007, how the IRS process differs from pursuing qui tam cases under the False Claims Act, and the “best practices” for attorneys who pursue IRS Whistleblower claims.

We appreciate how generous Mr. Whitlock has been with his time in helping educate lawyers who wish to bring IRS Whistleblowers claims, which was the reason for the IRS Whistleblower Boot Camp in March.IRS Whistleblower Office Director Steve Whitlock (right) participates in a panel discussion moderated by Whistleblower Lawyer Blog Co-Author Michael A. Sullivan (left) at the IRS Whistleblower Boot Camp.

Some excerpts from the interview are below (more will follow later), and the entire interview should be available through Taxpayers Against Fraud on a subscription basis:

Michael Sullivan: Steve Whitlock, thank you for agreeing to speak with me for the TAF Quarterly to discuss the “Best Practices for Lawyers in Pursuing IRS Whistleblower Claims.”

. . . For lawyers screening cases, are there particular types of cases that the IRS is interested in, or particular industries that are more attractive to the IRS?

Steve Whitlock: The IRS puts out an annual plan and has a strategic plan that reaches out five years, which is posted on www.irs.gov. We describe our enforcement priorities. We try to touch a little bit of everything in different ways because the tax system is that complex. We try to have some presence in every aspect of the tax law.

The largest corporations tend to be under audit nearly continuously. Issues on international tax noncompliance are getting more attention in recent years because of globalization of the economy. There have been some congressional hearings recently about those kinds of questions where large corporations –multinationals–have the ability to take advantage of the tax code and their business structure to reduce their tax liability. Sometimes that is permitted by the tax code, and sometimes it is not. That is an area of focus-to identify those areas where it is not permitted, but somebody is pushing the envelope.

Someone who is not filing and paying-that is always of interest to us. High-income non-filers are especially interesting to us. Define “high income” how you want to, but we generally look at six figures, $200,000, $250,000 in gross income.

We have concerns in the areas of “trust funds,” where a taxpayer is an employer and is withholding from their employees, in order to cover the employees’ personal tax liability. When you have someone who is acting in effect as a trustee for the federal government by withholding tax from employee wages, but then says “You know, I’m having a little trouble with the business. I’m going to pay my bills before I pay the tax bill.” That’s an area that has been an enforcement priority for many years.

We have a whole series of abusive transactions that are identified in our enforcement priorities. CI, on their part of the website, will identify the “Dirty Dozen.” Some of those are at the retail level, and some of them are not. Some of them involve fairly sophisticated schemes. So, the Service is interested in a lot of different areas.

Fundamentally if there is serious tax noncompliance, if there’s evidence that there is real money involved in it, the Service is going to be interested. If it is below the $2 million threshold in the statute, we still have the backup of the pre-amendment rule, subsection (a) of the statute. We still pay, we still accept, we still process those claims.
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We have written previously how the “bailout” measures such as TARP–the Troubled Assets Relief Program–and other “stimulus” measures must have effective oversight,disclosure, and anti-fraud provisions to protect those funds from those who look to commit fraud. The speed at which the government has acted to address the faltering economy will only increase the opportunities for fraud. Already, TARP whistleblowers have begun to come forward with reports of misuse of billions in TARP funds.

This week, Neal Barofsky, the Special Inspector General for the Troubled Assets Relief Program reiterated those points in his Quarterly Report to Congress. The IG described TARP as “inherently vulnerable to fraud, waste and abuse, including significant issues relating to conflicts of interest facing fund managers, collusion between participants and vulnerabilities to money laundering.”

Barofsky’s unit, known in government lingo as “SIGTARP,” has opened twenty investigations that include suspected securities fraud, tax law violations, insider trading and mortgage modification fraud. We expect that his staff is working closely with the Internal Revenue Service Criminal Investigation division (“IRS-CI”), the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”), and other government agencies.

The audits being conducted by Barofsky’s unit address, among other things, how TARP funds are being used; compliance with executive compensation provisions; Treasury’s decisions about funding the first TARP recipients and its decisions relating to Bank of America’s acquisition of Merrill Lynch; AIG and its bonuses; and the AIG counterparties that received TARP funds. These lists will only grow.

According to Barofsky, “You don’t need an entirely corrupt institution to pull one of these schemes off,” he said. “You only need a few corrupt managers whose compensation may be tied to the performance of these assets in order to effectively pull off collusion or a kickback scheme.”

Just since last Fall, the TARP program has grown in “scope, scale, and complexity” from the original program intended to purchase up to $700 billion in “toxic” assets such as troubled mortgages and mortgage-backed securities (“MBS”). Now, TARP funds are going to twelve separate programs and could reach $3 trillion, according to this week’s Report.

As a practical matter, we have found that TARP funds are at greater risk of abuse in the absence of clear restrictions on use of the funds. This glaring oversight in how TARP was originally established must be remedied immediately for anti-fraud measures such as the False Claims Act to be effective in protecting the funds. Clear restrictions and limitations on TARP funds would also allow the IRS Whistleblower Program to be used by whistleblowers who report TARP abuse and fraud.

Here is the link to the Quarterly Report to Congress by the Special Inspector General for the Troubled Assets Relief Program. The Executive Summary is reprinted below:
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New legislation to combat financial institution fraud, securities fraud, mortgage fraud, and other fraud and abuse is gaining momentum, and brings closer long-needed amendments to restore to its intended strength the nation’s major “whistleblower” law, the False Claims Act.

The Fraud Enforcement and Recovery Act of 2009 (S. 386) received support yesterday in a statement from the Administration:

The Administration strongly supports enactment of S. 386. Its provisions would provide Federal investigators and prosecutors with significant new criminal and civil tools and resources that would assist in holding accountable those who have committed financial fraud.

I spent a very productive day today with IRS Whistleblower Office Director Steve Whitlock, former IRS Commissioner Margaret Richardson, IRS Special Counsel Tom Kane, and other senior IRS officials working with the IRS Whistleblower Office, in helping stage the most comprehensive legal education program yet about the new IRS Whistleblower Program–the “IRS Whistleblower Boot Camp.” The day-long event was sponsored by Taxpayers Against Fraud.

After sessions on various aspects of how the tax whistleblower program operates, I was honored to lead the panel discussion with Director Whitlock and others on some difficult and complex issues in representing whistleblowers. We discussed in depth claims by whistleblowers such as CPAs, lawyers, and fiduciaries who have had confidential relationships with the taxpayers in question; and claims by whistleblowers who were involved in misconduct. Joining our panel discussion were Special Counsel Tom Kane of the Office of Chief Counsel, and my friend and fellow whistleblower attorney Paul D. Scott of San Francisco.Whistleblower Lawyer Blog Co-Author Michael A. Sullivan (left) moderates the panel discussion with IRS Whistleblower Office Director Steve Whitlock (right).

Director Whitlock explained how the claims submitted to the two year-old IRS Whistleblower Office have grown from approximately 80 in the first year, to approximately 2000 at present.

The IRS officials reviewed offshore tax schemes, tax fraud and tax evasion, and many other types of tax noncompliance as potential bases of IRS Whistleblower claims.The IRS Whistleblower Boot Camp began with “IRS Whistleblower Office 101,” a panel discussion introducing the applicable regulations, providing an overview of the IRS Whistleblower Office, and providing an update on the progress of the program. It was moderated by TAF Member Margaret Finerty, and included as panelists Director Steve Whitlock, and IRS Whistleblower Office Analysts Robert Gardner, Dawn Applebaum, and Al Gibson. (Dawn Applebam had joined me last week in Atlanta to make an excellent presentation on the IRS Whistleblower Program at the annual “Whistleblower Law Symposium” that our firm sponsors.)

The main domestic and international tax fraud schemes, and the types of cases the IRS Whistleblower Office would like to receive, were the subject of a discussion by former IRS Commissioner Margaret Richardson. The panelists were IRS “Subject Matter Experts” Larry Brongel (Large and Mid-sized Business Division (LMSB), Retailers, Food, Pharmaceuticals and Healthcare Industry); Sheila Olander (Sr. Analyst Special Agent with the IRS Criminal Investigative Division, Office of Financial Crimes); Elizabeth Elfrey (Director, Fraud/Bank Secrecy Act in the IRS Small Business/Self Employed (SBSE)); and Al Gibson (Whistleblower Office Analyst).

TAF member Frederick Morgan, and attorney and CPA Ralph Minto, then discussed expanding a False Claims Act practice to include IRS Whistleblower cases.

TAF President Neil Getnick led a panel discussion on issue-spotting and practice pointers when bringing IRS Whistleblower cases. The panelists were Director Steve Whitlock, Special Counsel Tom Kane, and TAF Member and fellow whistleblower attorney Brian Kenney.
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Today, we were excited to hear that the Senate Judiciary Committee has sent long-needed amendments to the False Claims Act to the full Senate, as part of the “bailout” and “stimulus” inspired “Fraud Enforcement and Recovery Act” (FERA).

Where there are taxpayer funds being spent, there will be attempts to engage in fraud to cheat the public. As hundreds of billions of dollars are poured into federal and state programs through the “economic stimulus” package, the continuation of the Troubled Assets Relief Program (“TARP”), the many federally funded health care programs such as Medicare and Medicaid, and the vast defense procurement industry that is servicing two wars, opportunities for fraud will only increase. The speed at which the “stimulus” funds will be spent will only increase the opportunities for fraud.

Senator Grassley has been steadfast in his efforts to ensure that these taxpayer funds receive the protection of the False Claims Act, which is the primary civil weapon to combat fraud and false claims. This bipartisan legislation would restore the False Claims Act to its original intent by “undoing” several attempts by judges to limit its reach. Among the goals of the Amendments are:

I am very excited about co-chairing the Annual “Whistleblower Law Symposium” once again this week.

From Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, New Orleans, San Antonio, and Washington, D.C., many of the country’s leading attorneys in whistleblower cases under the “qui tam” statute, the False Claims Act, the Sarbanes-Oxley statute, and the IRS Whistleblower Program will gather in Atlanta on March 4 to discuss some of the more challenging aspects of representing whistleblowers (or defending against whistleblower claims) under these laws.

We are honored to have one of the officials of the IRS Whistleblower Office, Dawn Applebaum, join us in person to discuss the progress of the new IRS Whistleblower Rewards Program. The IRS Whistleblower Office has just celebrated its second anniversary.

We are also privileged to have the top state enforcement officials in health care fraud cases from Texas, Florida, and Georgia, to explain how they coordinate state and federal health care fraud whistleblower cases under the federal and state False Claims Acts.

Also joining us is Rep. Edward Lindsey, the Legislative Sponsor both of the Georgia State False Medicaid Claims Act, and recent legislation to solidify Georgia’s Office of State Inspector General.

Because of the wave of new whistleblower statutes that have been inspired by the successes of the False Claims Act, our firm instituted the Whistleblower Law Symposium. Once again, top-notch speakers will address a broad variety of issues that arise under these whistleblower laws, including:

–Whistleblowers in Health Care: Recent Cases and Strategies for Healthcare Providers and Counsel When a Whistleblower Calls

–Recent Developments in Qui Tam Cases Under the False Claims Act-The Relator’s Perspective
–Current Issues in Defending Qui Tam Claims
–Coordinating State and Federal Whistleblower Cases Under the State and Federal False Claims Acts-Current Priorities and Recent Results
–Federal Priorities and Procedures in Qui Tam Cases
–Plaintiffs’ & Defendants’ Approaches to Sarbanes-Oxley Claims
–Update on the IRS Whistleblower Program

We are fortunate to have such excellent faculty members from around the country join us. Our faculty members and their topics are listed below.
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Taking a brief break from “substantive” writing on this whistleblower lawyer blog, I could not help but briefly note this story today:

Filmmaker Michael Moore is seeking whistleblowers in the financial industry for his next film. He concludes “if you work for a bank, a brokerage firm or an insurance company — or if you have seen things or heard things that you believe the American people have a right to know — please contact me” via the email address posted on his blog.

Perhaps those whistleblowers should follow Sen. Grassley’s strong advice to use the qui tam whistleblower provisions of the False Claims Act to report fraud and abuse in TARP or other “bailout” measures. Persons in the financial services industry already have contacted us to do just that, and some also have potential claims in the IRS Whistleblower Program.

Both the False Claims Act and the IRS Whistleblower law allow the private citizen whistleblowers to share in the government’s recovery of money wrongfully obtained, as we have written about extensively.

We anticipate that the “stimulus” package in Congress this week also will produce many opportunities for fraud and abuse of taxpayer funds, so that whistleblowers also will be important to deter those abuses through use of the False Claims Act and the IRS Whistleblower Program.
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Those potential whistleblowers watching for TARP waste, fraud and abuse should note today’s report of the Congressional Oversight Panel. According to the report, the Treasury Department has received “far less value in stocks and warrants than the money it injected into financial institutions.”

The report, “Valuing Treasury Acquisitions,” concludes that Treasury paid “substantially more for the assets it purchased under the TARP than the market value of those assets” at the time this deal was announced. The Panel revealed that, in the ten largest transactions with TARP funds, for each $100 spent by Treasury, it received assets worth only approximately $66.

The full report can be found at COP.Senate.gov.

When improprieties occur with hedge funds, the hedge funds’ lack of transparency and dearth of disclosure obligations make violations of the law difficult to uncover. Sometimes, persons in the hedge fund industry report those abuses through the IRS Whistleblower Program, as some of our IRS Whistleblower clients have done.

Nonetheless, the hedge fund industry remains cloaked in secrecy, frustrating experts who now seek to gauge the impact of hedge funds on the current financial crisis.

A new bill just introduced in the Senate, the “Hedge Fund Transparency Act,” would lift that cloak and create disclosure requirements for hedge funds and oversight of hedge funds by the SEC. This bipartisan bill sponsored by Senators Chuck Grassley and Carl Levin modifies a prior approach to hedge fund scrutiny pressed by Sen. Grassley, after a whistleblower complained that SEC supervisors were impeding an investigation into a major hedge fund.

According to Sen. Grassley, “The bill contains four basic requirements to make hedge funds subject to SEC regulation and oversight. It requires them to register with the SEC, to file an annual disclosure form with basic information that will be made publicly available, to maintain books and records required by the SEC, and to cooperate with any SEC information request or examination.”

Until the Bear Stearns debacle, there seemed little political will for any serious oversight of hedge funds. The SEC in 2004 had issued a rule requiring hedge funds to register under the Investment Advisers Act, to comply with related regulations, and to provide basic information through a public disclosure form. In June 2006, however, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit declared the rule invalid as incompatible with the Investment Advisers Act.

In hindsight, that absence of scrutiny may be seen as a grave error, one which may have helped create the current financial meltdown.

Since 1998, when the Federal Reserve acted to rescue Long-Term Capital Management (LTCM), a hedge fund with more than $125 billion in assets under management and a total market position of approximately $1.3 trillion, investments in hedge funds have grown dramatically.
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