The IRS Under Siege
Confidence Games: Lawyers, Accountants, and the Tax Shelter Industry, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2014
15 Pages Posted: 24 Jul 2014
Date Written: 2014
Confidence Games provides an account of the wave of tax shelters that occurred at the turn of the twenty-first century. During this period, some of America’s most prominent law and accounting firms created and marketed products that enabled the very rich — including newly minted dot-com millionaires — to avoid paying their share of taxes by claiming benefits not recognized by law. These abusive tax shelters bore names like BOSS, BLIPS, and COBRA and were developed by such prestigious firms as KPMG, Ernst & Young, BDO Seidman, the now defunct Jenkens & Gilchrist and Brown & Wood, now merged into Sidley Austin. These shelters brought in hundreds of millions of dollars in fees from clients and deprived the U.S. Treasury of billions in revenue before the IRS and Justice Department stepped in with civil penalties and criminal prosecutions targeting the professionals and firms involved. As we suggest, the decade of tax shelter activity between the mid-1990s and mid-2000s is the most serious episode of professional misconduct in the history of the American bar.
Chapter 1, available here, describes how an overstretched and under-resourced IRS came under attack in the late 1990’s by anti-tax and anti-government members of Congress. In the chapters that follow, we describe the heightened competition for professional services, the relaxation of tax practitioner norms against aggressive advice, and the creation of complex financial instruments that made abusive shelters harder to detect. By 2004, the tax shelter boom was over, leaving failed firms, disgraced professionals, and prison sentences in its wake. A central theme that we explore in the book is the role of organizational forces in abetting wrongdoing. In the conclusion, we assess the regulatory responses that ultimately put an end to this wave of shelters. We also consider strategies and approaches that might serve to strengthen professional norms governing tax advice.
The rise and fall of the tax shelter industry offers a cautionary tale that we believe remains highly relevant today, as lawyers and accountants continue to face intense competitive pressure and regulators continue to struggle to keep pace with accelerating financial risk and innovation.
Keywords: tax advisors, conflicted citizens, professional conduct, tax advice
JEL Classification: K30, K34, K39
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation
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By Linda Sugin