by Linda Beale
One of the (many) ways by which rich, sophisticated taxpayers who are also ultra-greedy have managed to avoid paying their fair share of taxes is to move money offshore through trusts and “companies” set up in various no-tax/lo-tax, hi-sun jurisdictions like the Cayman Islands, British Virgin Islands, Cook Islands, Singapore, etc. I suppose for many years this scheme served multiple objectives–it stashed the cash beyond the reach of the US government, it provided a nice place to visit the cash, and it had the cachet of belonging to the exclusive jet set behind it.
That’s becoming less so as the US continues to pursue tax cheats with unreported offshore accounts. The dam started bursting with the revelation of the way Swiss bankers groveled at their American clients’ feet, from smuggling diamonds into the country in toothpaste tubes to secreting gold in deep, hidden vaults to setting up sham companies in the Phillipines or other countries. Over the last half decade, more people have participated in voluntary disclosure and more have been identified for more serious penalty programs (including criminal prosecution). Each voluntary disclosure included full information about those who facilitated the offshoring–bankers’ names, other involved lawyers, accountants, and bankers, other entities. That groundswell of information facilitated identification of even more tax cheats, and those identifications yielded a new trove of relational data–those who had assisted them. That finally seemed to begin to put some teeth into enforcement efforts and some gnashing of teeth into the lives of the otherwise obliviously happy tax evaders.
But various commentators (including my colleague at Wayne Law, Professor Michael McIntyre) have been concerned that the offshore gambit can’t be cleaned up until countries begin more automatic sharing of the tax information they have without requiring the requesting country to have already identified the accountholder well enough to ask for information specifically about that person. If they can ask specifically, of course, it means they have already been found, which makes for a catch-22 that has made pursuing secret bank account holders an overly arduous task.
That makes the IRS’s announcement today of a new coordinated effort among the U.S., U.K, and Australia heartening news. They have agreed to share information about trusts and companies holding assets in tax havens like the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, and Singapore. See IRS news release IR-2013-48 (May 9, 2013). With the cache of information each country has gleaned from the recent efforts, coordination will allow them all to benefit from each one’s effort. That should accelerate the effort to catch the tax cheats.