With Tax Day Nearly Behind Us, Justice Department Pivots to Warnings About Employment Tax Violations

by Fox Rothschild LLP
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Following a relentless flurry of press releases announcing criminal charges against tax evaders in the run up to today’s tax filing deadline (see here, here, and here), the Justice Department wasted no time in turning its attention to its next target:  employers and individuals who violate the federal employment tax laws. In a press release entitled “Justice Department Continues To Sue, Prosecute Delinquent Employers,” the Justice Department emphasizes that it is continuing its employment tax “enforcement push” by bringing civil and criminal enforcement actions against employers and individuals who violate employment tax laws:

Many Americans associate April with “Tax Day” and the annual deadline for filing individual income tax returns. But the end of April is also the first deadline for employers to file quarterly employment tax returns. Those who do not comply with filing requirements or who fail to pay the taxes withheld from their employees’ wages face civil lawsuits or criminal prosecutions as part of the Department of Justice’s ongoing focus to enforce employment tax laws using all tools available.

By way of background, employers in the United States are required to collect, account for, and pay over to the Internal Revenue Service tax withheld from employee wages, including federal income tax and social security and Medicare taxes. Employers also have an independent responsibility to pay their matching share of social security and Medicare taxes.

“Employers who willfully fail to comply with their employment tax obligations are cheating the U.S. Treasury at the expense of taxpayers, such as law-abiding employers and employees, who pay their taxes on time and in full,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General David A. Hubbert of the Justice Department’s Tax Division. “The Department is committed to holding employers that willfully fail to pay their employment taxes accountable with, as appropriate, criminal prosecution, bringing these offenders into compliance through civil injunctions, and working with the IRS to collect what is owed.”

“Employment taxes are a critical part of the tax system, generating more than $1 trillion a year in payments to the government, and the IRS works closely with employers and the payroll community to help ensure compliance in this area,” said IRS Commissioner John Koskinen. “We want to help employers avoid problems in the employment tax area. When problems do arise, we use civil enforcement tools and, when appropriate, work closely with the Justice Department in the pursuit of criminal cases. The collection of employment taxes is a priority area for the IRS and helps ensure fairness for employers and taxpayers. Employers who fail to pay or withhold these taxes enjoy an unfair economic advantage over those who comply with the tax laws.”

The Justice Department’s press release serves as a reminder that an individual’s willful failure to comply with employment-tax obligations is not simply a civil matter. Employers whose business model is based on a continued failure to pay employment tax, who use withheld employment taxes as a slush fund to pay personal expenses or other creditors, who pay employees in cash to avoid employment tax obligations, or who file false employment tax returns can subject themselves to prosecution, imprisonment, monetary fines, and restitution.

Aggressive criminal and civil enforcement of the federal employment tax laws has been a top priority of both the Justice Department and the IRS for the past several years. Amounts withheld from employee wages represent nearly 70% of all revenue collected by the IRS. According to a recent report from the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA), as of December 2015, 1.4 million employers owed approximately $45.6 billion in unpaid employment taxes, interest, and penalties. The Justice Department’s Tax Division reports that as of June 30, 2016, more than $59.4 billion of taxes reported on quarterly federal employment tax returns remained unpaid. Employment tax violations represent more than $91 billion of the “Tax Gap,” which measures the difference between the total amount of tax owed to the U.S. Treasury and the amount actually paid. During fiscal year 2016, employment tax investigations were one of the few categories of tax crimes for which IRS-Criminal Investigation initiated more investigations than in the prior fiscal year.

Employment tax schemes can take a variety of forms. Some of the more common schemes include employee leasing, paying employees in cash, filing false employment tax returns, failing to file employment tax returns, and “pyramiding.” Pyramiding refers to the practice of withholding taxes from employee wages, but failing to remit such taxes to the IRS. After the employment tax liability accrues, the business owner starts a new business and begins to accrue employment tax liabilities anew.

Today’s press release highlights recent examples of employment tax enforcement in both the criminal and civil arenas, starting with the following examples of employers who engaged in “pyramiding” taxes by opening successive businesses:

In January, Napoleon Robinson of Lauderhill, Florida, was sentenced to serve 18 months in prison for evading more than $500,000 in employment taxes. Robinson owned and operated a series of ship welding and repair businesses in Virginia and New York. Robinson was not paying over employment taxes and would close down one company and open a new one in the name of a nominee owner, while continuing to run the company, making its financial and personnel decisions and controlling the businesses’ bank accounts. He was also ordered to pay restitution to the IRS.

In January, two West Virginia business owners, Michael and Jeanette Taylor, were sentenced to serve 21 and 27 months in prison for failing to pay over more than $1.4 million in employment taxes. The Taylors owned a construction business that transported steel and sold gravel and concrete. They changed the name of their business several times, though the operations of the business remained the same. Both were responsible for collecting, accounting for and paying over the employment taxes withheld from their employees’ wages. Instead of paying over the taxes that they collected, the Taylors used the funds to purchase property and finance their horse farm. They were also ordered to pay restitution to the IRS.

The following cases demonstrate examples of employers who used withheld employment taxes to pay personal expenses, or to pay other creditors:

In January, Paul Harvey Boone of Hillsborough, North Carolina, was sentenced to serve 15 months in prison for failing to pay over employment taxes. Boone owned and operated Boone Audio Inc. From 2008 through 2011, Boone used company funds for personal expenses while failing to pay over the employment taxes withheld from his employees’ wages. He was also ordered to pay restitution to the IRS.

In December 2016, Sreedar Potarazu, a Maryland surgeon and entrepreneur, pleaded guilty to failing to account for and pay over $7.5 million in employment taxes and to shareholder fraud. Potarazu founded VitalSpring Technologies Inc., a corporation that provided data analysis and services related to health care expenditures. Potarazu was responsible for collecting, truthfully accounting for and paying over VitalSpring’s employment taxes. Instead of paying over the employment tax, Potarazu spent millions on personal expenses including transferring funds to himself and others, travel, car service and the publication of a book.

In January, Steven Lynch, a tax attorney and owner of the Iceoplex in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, was sentenced to serve 48 months in prison, fined $75,000 and ordered to pay restitution to the IRS of more than $793,000, after being convicted of failing to collect, account for and pay over employment taxes. Lynch co-owned and operated the Iceoplex, a recreational sports facility which included a fitness center, ice rink, soccer court, restaurant and bar. He controlled the finances for these businesses and was responsible for collecting, accounting for and paying over tax withheld from employee wages and timely filing employment tax returns. Lynch failed to pay over more than $790,000 in employment taxes withheld.

In June 2016, Muzaffar Hussain of Pleasanton, California, pleaded guilty to failing to account for and pay over employment taxes for Crossroads Home Health Care Inc. Hussain was the CFO and was responsible for filing the company’s employment tax returns and paying over the employment taxes. Hussain transferred funds in an amount equal or close to the amount of employment taxes from the business bank account into other accounts and used the money to fund other business and personal expenses.

In the following case, the Justice Department prosecuted an employer who paid employees in cash to avoid paying employment taxes:

In September 2016, Phillip Hui of Sicklerville, New Jersey, was sentenced to serve 15 months in prison for conspiring to evade payroll taxes on cash wages paid to illegal immigrants employed at his dry cleaning business. Hui hired foreign nationals from Mexico and Guatemala who did not have legal status in the United States and paid them in cash. Their wages were not reported on the quarterly employment tax returns filed with the IRS. He was also ordered to pay restitution to the IRS.

Employers who file false employment tax returns are also subject to prosecution, as the following cases demonstrate:

In March, Richard Tatum, a Houston, Texas, business owner of an industrial staffing company, pleaded guilty to failing to pay more than $18 million in employment taxes. Tatum filed false employment tax returns that did not report the majority of his employees and did not pay over the taxes he withheld from his employees. Instead, he used the money for luxury travel and to make payments on his ranch.

In January, Janis Ann Edwards, an Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, business owner, pleaded guilty to evading more than $3.5 million in employment taxes. Edwards was the sole owner of Corporate Resource Management Inc. and a number of related companies that operated as professional employer organizations. Edwards directed her employees to alter quarterly employment tax returns to reflect less payroll tax liability than was actually owed.

The Justice Department’s Tax Division is also aggressively pursuing civil enforcement action against those who fail to meet their employment tax obligations. Since 2003, the Division has permanently enjoined more than one hundred employers and obtained tens of millions of dollars in money judgments. Civil injunctions are court orders requiring the employer and principal officers to timely deposit and pay employment taxes to the U.S. Treasury. These court orders also impose various other requirements and prohibitions, including the obligation to provide notice of each deposit to the IRS, as well as restrictions on opening and operating new businesses and transferring or dissipating assets.

In recent years, the Tax Division increased the number of civil actions brought against employers who violate employment tax laws. In 2016, the Tax Division obtained employment tax injunctions against 38 employers—more than double the number of injunctions obtained in 2015. The injunctions obtained in the past year include court orders against employers throughout the United States, such as a St. Louis concrete business, a Florida restaurant, an Iowa lawn care business and a Michigan custom kitchen company.

Since January 1, 2017, the Tax Division filed 17 suits, collectively seeking more than $10 million in unpaid employment taxes, against tax-delinquent medical-care providers who, despite IRS notices and efforts to collect, have been non-compliant for three or more quarters, despite persistent attempts by the IRS to remind them of their obligations and to collect the unpaid taxes.

These 17 suits collectively seek more than $10 million in unpaid employment taxes and are part of an ongoing effort by the Justice Department and the IRS focusing on employment tax compliance. Among these cases is a suit filed in federal court in Minnesota to enjoin Dawda Sowe and Nurse Staffing Solutions Health Care from failing to pay employment taxes and to obtain a $2 million judgment against the business for employment taxes the business allegedly failed to pay over an eight-year period. Also, this month the Tax Division filed suit in federal court in Texas to obtain a court order requiring Jeanna Smith to timely file employment and unemployment tax returns for her business and pay those taxes in full, amongst other requirements. In this suit, the government also seeks a judgment for unpaid employment taxes and alleges that Smith incorporated several home-health care businesses, such as Paris Senior Care Group Inc., which accumulated more than $1.3 million in unpaid employment taxes.

Finally, those who violate an injunction can be charged with civil and criminal contempt and face being shut down, paying compensation for the damage the contempt caused and incarceration of the principal corporate officers. For example, a federal court in Washington held Dr. James Hood and his wife, Karen Hood, in contempt of court for a consistent pattern of failing to meet their tax obligations. The court later ordered the two to close their dental care businesses, cease operating as employers, and barred them from opening any new businesses where the Hoods would serve as employers by June 8, 2017.

Any individual who is responsible for ensuring that employment taxes are collected, truthfully accounted for, and paid over to the IRS, and willfully fails to do so or willfully attempts to evade or defeat paying employment taxes may be subject to a civil penalty equal to the amount of the unpaid withholdings. This civil penalty, referred to as the Trust Fund Recovery Penalty (TFRP), may be imposed even if the individual uses the employment tax to pay other creditors or keep the business afloat. Individuals subject to these penalties include, but are not limited to, corporate officers, treasurers, managers, and, in some circumstances, bookkeepers. In fiscal year 2015, the IRS assessed the TFRP against approximately 27,000 responsible individuals.

Since January 2013, the Tax Division has obtained tens of millions of dollars in money judgments against individuals subject to these penalties. For example, in July 2016, a Florida jury found the CEO and owner of a professional employer organization personally liable for more than $4.2 million due to his failure to pay his company’s employment taxes. In addition, in December 2016, the U.S. Court of Federal Claims found that the CFO of an Internet-marketing platform was responsible for his company’s failure to pay its employment taxes and entered a judgment of more than $500,000 against him. And in April, a federal court found the co-manager of an architectural woodwork installation company personally liable for $1.9 million due to his failure to pay his company’s employment taxes.

In contrast to the Justice Department’s press release touting its successes in the employment tax field, a TIGTA report issued less than 30 days ago painted a considerably less rosy picture of the government’s efforts to ensure employment tax compliance. In a report entitled “A More Focused Strategy Is Needed to Effectively Address Employment Tax Crimes,” TIGTA concluded that the IRS needs a better strategy to enhance the effectiveness of the agency’s efforts to address, and punish, egregious employment tax violators:

Employment tax noncompliance is a serious crime. Employment taxes finance Federal Government operations plus Social Security and Medicare. When employers willfully fail to account for and deposit employment taxes, which they are holding in trust on behalf of the Federal Government, they are in effect stealing from the Government. As of December 2015, 1.4 million employers owed approximately $45.6 billion in unpaid employment taxes, interest, and penalties. The TFRP is a civil enforcement tool the Collection function can use to discourage employers from continuing egregious employment tax noncompliance and provides an additional source of collection for unpaid employment taxes. In FY 2015, the IRS assessed the TFRP against approximately 27,000 responsible persons – 38 percent fewer than just five years before as a result of diminished revenue officer resources. In contrast, the number of employers with egregious employment tax noncompliance (20 or more quarters of delinquent employment taxes) is steadily growing—more than tripling in a 17-year period. For some tax debtors, assessing the TFRP does not stop the abuse. Although the willful failure to remit employment taxes is a felony, there are fewer than 100 criminal convictions per year. In addition, since the number of actual convictions is so miniscule, in our opinion, there is likely little deterrent effect.

TIGTA recommended that the IRS should use data analytics to better target egregious employment tax noncompliance, including identification of high-dollar cases and individuals with multiple companies that are noncompliant. In addition, TIGTA recommended that the IRS Collection Division expand the criteria used to refer potentially criminal employment tax cases to IRS-CI to include any egregious cases (not only those where a firm indication of fraud is present).

Notwithstanding TIGTA’s recent criticism, it is readily apparent that employment tax enforcement is a top priority for both the Justice Department and the IRS.  With the massive amounts of unpaid employment taxes that remain outstanding, we can undoubtedly expect to see vigorous enforcement in this area, both criminal and civil, in the coming months and years.

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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