U.S. offshore tax amnesty yields big response – IRS

November 17, 2009

U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Commissioner Douglas Shulman speaks during an interview with Reuters at his office in Washington October 8, 2009. REUTERS/Hyungwon Kang By Kim Dixon
WASHINGTON, Nov 17 (Reuters) – Some 14,700 rich Americans worried about a U.S. government crackdown on offshore tax cheats came forward to participate in a tax amnesty program, the top U.S. tax official said on Tuesday.

Participation in the Internal Revenue Service’s amnesty program was “unprecedented” and the final number was nearly double the agency’s estimate in October, U.S. Internal Revenue Service Commissioner Douglas Shulman told reporters in a telephone briefing.

The IRS amnesty program, which ended in October, offered reduced penalties for wealthy Americans who voluntarily disclosed previously undeclared foreign bank accounts and assets. “We were flooded with people coming in the final days of the program,” Shulman said.

“The IRS has never got anything like that in response to prior initiatives,” said Barbara Kaplan, a lawyer for high net- worth clients in New York. “It’s a little higher than I anticipated based on the pace of my own practice and the panic that was out there.”

While agency officials were still analyzing the amount of offshore assets and bank accounts disclosed, Shulman said “we are talking about billions of dollars coming into the U.S. treasury” from the amnesty program.

Of the 14,700 newly disclosed accounts, Shulman said many involved bank accounts in Switzerland and Europe, but assets were also hidden in more than 70 countries.

“The whole game around bank secrecy, around offshore (tax) evasion is changing” because of pressure from the U.S. Justice Department and from international capital markets, he said.

At the center of the U.S. efforts to combat tax evasion abroad is a case against Swiss banking giant UBS AG <UBSN.VX>, which led the bank to agree to reveal the names of 4,450 client accounts.

Shulman also said the outpouring of hidden offshore accounts does not affect in any way the obligation of UBS to turn over those American account-holder names. There had been some speculation that success in the amnesty program would cut the obligation of UBS to turn over accounts.

“Some have misinterpreted this,” Shulman said.
Although the amnesty program has ended, Shulman encouraged Americans with hidden offshore assets to continue to come forward and talk with the IRS about them. “It will be much worse for them if we find them first,” he said.

The U.S. and Swiss governments also released on Tuesday the criteria it used to arrive at the 4,450 accounts that parties agreed UBS would eventually turn over to U.S. authorities.

The Swiss Justice Department said it would hand over the names of wealthy U.S. clients of UBS with accounts holding more than 1 million Swiss francs ($986,200) where there is a reasonable suspicion of tax fraud.

Accounts of a lesser size could come under the deal where there is a “scheme of lies” identified, according to the document.

It describes suspicious activity that could be interpreted as tax fraud including the use of debit cards, cell phones or wire transfers to hide accounts.

Shulman said the agreement will give the U.S. accounts it is most interested in — those where taxpayers exhibited the most egregious behavior, those that would be hardest for the U.S. to identify and accounts with the largest holdings.

Submission of data to U.S. authorities applies to UBS accounts held between 2001 and 2008 by U.S. citizens.

(Reporting by Kim Dixon, with additional reporting by Jason Rhodes in Bern, Switzerland; Writing by Julie Vorman, Editing by Maureen Bavdek)
((kim.dixon@thomsonreuters.com; +1 202 354-5864; Reuters Messaging: kim.dixon.reuters.com@reuters.net)) Keywords:

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