Tag Archives: tax fraud

Sophisticated Theft

The recent indictment of the CFO of Trump’s business empire has offered us a window into the differences in dishonest behavior between members of different social classes–and the extent to which anti-social behavior by “others” is viewed more negatively.

As a law professor who was a former U.S. Attorney opined, in the wake of the indictment of Allen Weisselberg,

As I learned during my career as a federal prosecutor, this is the way rich people steal money. The means are more sophisticated than sticking up someone with a gun on a street corner, but purpose is the same, which is why one of the charges is grand larceny— stealing property that doesn’t belong to you.

The charges leveled thus far–the investigation is ongoing, and more are likely–are serious. No one brandished a weapon, but according to the indictment, the company under Weisselberg’s and Trump’s direction engaged in 15 types of fraud over a period of years. Those included a number of schemes to evade income taxes, mostly by finding ways to compensate employees “off the books.”  The organization provided employees with cars, apartments, private school tuition, home improvements and bonuses– without , however, reporting these perks as the taxable income they legally were. That allowed the organization to avoid payroll taxes and allowed the employees thus compensated to significantly reduce both their taxable income and  the amount of taxes they paid.

This wasn’t penny-ante stuff; the indictment accuses Weisselberg alone of concealing approximately $1.7 million of his own compensation from tax authorities.

If this indictment was merely more evidence of Donald Trump’s disdain for the law, it would be worth at most a shake of the head and a comment to the effect that it didn’t come as a surprise. Unfortunately, however, fraud of this sort is apparently widespread among wealthy and near-wealthy individuals who share Trump’s stated belief that “smart” people don’t pay a lot in taxes.

The reactions to the indictments by Trump’s defenders have been telling. Defense lawyers characterized the criminal charges as “inappropriate,” and a number of rank-and-file, “law and order” Republicans shrugged them off as business as usual. Evidently, they consider the theft of millions of dollars accomplished without weaponry less serious than a holdup at gunpoint on the street (netting, perhaps, a couple of hundred dollars and a watch).

Of course, we “little people” have to make up the amounts lost by reason of this tax cheating through our own taxes–but what I find even more troubling is the lack of indignation and condemnation of this clearly fraudulent and criminal behavior. That indulgence undermines both the legitimacy of government and the rule of law.

We sometimes forget the extent to which our legal and economic systems require the voluntary compliance of the vast majority of Americans. To use an obvious example, most of us who drive stop at red lights and obey (most) other rules of the road. We couldn’t hire enough police officers to ensure safe roads if we couldn’t rely on the willingness of large majorities to obey traffic rules.

For that matter, America’s entire system of commerce relies upon the willingness of most sellers to deliver goods as promised, and the willingness of most buyers to pay for those goods in a timely manner without the need to send for the sheriff.

Our tax system similarly depends upon the voluntary compliance of millions of Americans who dutifully file the required paperwork and remit the appropriate payments. When that culture of obedience is allowed to erode–when the well-to-do can publicly wink at each others’ fraudulent evasions–that erosion inevitably breeds resentment among the law-abiding, and excuses additional noncompliance, not just with the tax laws, but within daily commerce.

The so-called “Captains of Industry” who consider themselves too smart to pay their taxes are also the scofflaws most likely to stiff the people with whom they do business. The Trump Organization is a prime example, but certainly not the only one.

Just because a certain type of theft is more sophisticated doesn’t make it less reprehensible. Stealing from the government is no less dishonest than stealing from individuals–and in fact, it is stealing from the individuals who must make up the difference.

It’s evidence of moral bankruptcy, not “smarts.”

 

 

 

 

What Those Taxes Show–And What They Don’t

So–we finally get to see a significant portion of the tax returns Trump has succeeded in hiding until now. As I understand it, the returns obtained by the Times were personal–not business returns–so any money that Russia supplied to The Trump Organization would only show up on returns we still haven’t seen.

The Times analysis is extensive, and you can read the details there. I’ll just share a few of my more immediate reactions:

  • If the New York Times is guilty of “fake news,”  as the President insists, he has an easy way to prove it. He can release the tax returns that rebut the “fake” version analyzed by the newspaper. (The situation he finds himself in vis a vis the tax returns is similar to that posed by multiple accusations of sexual assault. At least one accuser has DNA evidence; Trump has refused to submit to a DNA test that he insists would exonerate him.) Innocent people who have the ability to conclusively demonstrate that innocence do not stubbornly refuse to do so.
  • Assuming the tax returns obtained by the Times are genuine–an inescapable assumption–the paltry $750 payment over a period of ten years can be explained in one of two ways: either Trump engaged in tax fraud–i.e., he cheated–or he was a terrible businessman. (And yes, it is possible, even likely, that both are true…) Michael Cohen, his longtime fixer, has testified that Trump exaggerated his net worth to lenders and hid assets from tax authorities, and anyone who’s been paying any attention at all the past few years will find that pattern of behavior consistent with what we’ve seen. The business failures also lend credibility to Cohen’s assertion that Trump ran for President assuming he would lose, in an effort to promote his “brand” and improve its performance.
  • The degree to which Trump is personally indebted–and the identity and nationality of the people to whom he owes significant sums–pose a “clear and present” danger to American security. That danger is undoubtedly one of the things that prompted the recent release of a letter from a bipartisan group of nearly 500 past and present national security officers, endorsing Joe Biden. According to media reports, the signatories included five former secretaries of the Navy, two former Army secretaries, four former Air Force secretaries, two retired governors, and 106 ambassadors.
  • Overall, the tax returns tell us that Trump is buried in an almost inconceivable mountain of debt. He owes more than $300 million dollars, and his businesses have  continually lost money. The only enterprise that actually generated net income for him was “The Apprentice”–and he used that income to shore up the golf courses and other ventures that have steadily lost money. He has personally guaranteed a significant amount of that debt (no doubt basing those guarantees on an inflated net worth), and the bulk of it is rapidly coming due.
  •  I was astonished at his evident success in deducting personal expenses. We “little people” who obediently follow the rules (making us, in Trump talk, “dumb”) could never get away with deducting $70,000 in hairstyling, or $26 million dollars in “consulting fees” paid to his own daughter–despite the fact that that daughter was also on his payroll!
  • The Times reported that Trump is fighting with the IRS over the repayment of a $72.9 million tax refund. If he has to repay it, it will run to $100 million when penalties and interest are factored in. I’m bemused –gobsmacked, actually–that he was able to con the IRS into giving him that refund in the first place.

There’s a lot more information in those returns, and the Times promises to follow up its bombshell disclosures with additional insights. But one thing is already abundantly clear: Trump’s frantic effort to avoid a peaceful transfer of power is based upon his recognition of the fact that once he leaves office, he will no longer be protected by that DOJ memo saying a sitting President cannot be indicted. He will face federal and state prosecution for bank fraud, tax fraud, wire fraud, and mail fraud.

Unless he manages to somehow steal the election and remain in office by subverting American law, Trump’s last days will be spent either in a federal prison or in one of those “shithole” countries that does not have an extradition agreement with the United States.

We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Ethics

CNN recently ran an illuminating article about Indiana Congressman Todd Young. 

In 2012, Young, a member of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee, claimed a house in Bloomington was his primary residence and deducted more than $200,000 from his property taxes – saving himself almost $5,000. Turns out, Young was renting the property, not living in it, according to documents obtained by CNN.

Young apologized for what he insisted was a “mistake”–although knowing whether you rent a property ought not be too complicated for a Congressman who sits on a committee writing tax laws. The County Treasurer disputes the “mistake” excuse:

Monroe County Treasurer Catherine Smith said that when Young was in her office in 2012 (paying $4,000 for 2011’s back taxes), she gave him the opportunity to update his records and remove the homestead deduction from the property, but he didn’t.

“It’s homestead fraud. He knew the state law,” the Democratic treasurer said. “A man that makes (a salary) from tax money should be held accountable for his own taxes.”

Smith was already frustrated that the check Young used to pay the $4,000 in back taxes bounced.

Well, yes, I can see how that might be frustrating…

Can we please start electing people who aren’t a complete and total embarrassment?