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Some Notes on Economic Reality and Section 7602(e)


We welcome back Bob Kamman who writes today about the past and how it matters in having a full understanding of the current debate forbidding the use of financial status or economic reality examination techniques.  Like Bob, I remember when the IRS rolled out economic audits.  His remembrances and insights help inform the current debate.

Les and I will be working with the Pittsburgh Tax Review to create a special edition on RRA 98 for its 25th birthday.  Maybe this will become one of the resources Bob seeks for Caleb’s students.  We welcome stories and comments from others who remember the lead up to that memorable tax procedure legislation.  Keith

In two recent posts available here and here, Professor Caleb Smith has discussed the current status and future implications of Code Section 7602(e), which forbids the use of “financial status or economic reality examination techniques” unless there is a “reasonable indication that there is a likelihood of unreported income.” 

Whatever that means.

The prohibition was part of the IRS Restructuring and Reform Act of 1998, and therefore has been law during all of Professor Smith’s professional career.  I am sure he knows much of the history behind RRA98, but are there resources for explaining its meaning to his students?

Allow me to reminisce about the events of 27 years ago, because a page of history may be worth a volume of statutory analysis.  I was there.  In fact, I was among the first to see it coming.

The first mention I encountered of “lifestyle audits” was at a regional gathering of 400 tax practitioners in Ogden, Utah in September, 1994.  We had been invited to seminars and a rare tour of the Service Center by former IRS Assistant Commissioner Robert Terry, who had stepped down from his position in Washington to become Director of that facility in his home state. Commissioner Margaret Milner Richardson was a keynote speaker.  (I asked her when IRS would implement the long-promised program of providing a PTIN so that preparers would not have to enter their SSN on every return they prepared.  She had no idea what I was talking about.)

The details on “Economic Reality” audits, meanwhile, came from John Monaco, the IRS Assistant Commissioner for Examination.  I wrote about it in an article for the November 1994 edition of “Tax Savings Report.”  From that article:

Every IRS auditor is going back to school for a week this Fall to learn a radical new approach to the job.

For years, IRS auditors have focused on paper and numbers – tax returns and the entries on them.  Now, auditors are being told to take a closer look at individual taxpayers using the increased capacity of computer matching.  When they see the whole picture, they ask, “What’s wrong with it?”

In an Economic Reality audit, inquiring minds at the IRS want to know:

– Your net worth.  Has it grown over a period of years due to hidden income?

– Your lifestyle, and especially your personal living expenses.  Do you indulge champagne tastes, when your Form 1040 shows a beer budget?

– How you make a living.  The IRS will pay attention to typical ways it has caught others in the same business who understate income or exaggerate deductions.

Auditors will go into an Economic Reality examination armed with data assembled through improved computer technology. [They] will already know whether you live in an affluent neighborhood and how much your car is worth.

Will the public approve of this increased interest by the federal government in private financial affairs?  Privacy concerns have to be addressed, acknowledged [Monaco], in a recent presentation to tax preparers on Economic Reality.

“You don’t get into these questions until there is an indication of unreported cash.  Most of the public demands that we do it,” Monaco said. “What else do you do when you see someone buy a $100,000 boat, and support a family of four in a wealthy neighborhood, on a reported income of $20,000 for each of the last three years?”

In IRS field tests, Monaco said, Economic Reality has succeeded.  When confronted with questions concerning their lifestyle and net worth, taxpayers readily signed agreements to pay more tax.  “Our problem is deciding how many to refer for criminal investigation, and how many stay as civil matters only,” Monaco said.

And one local audit manager pointed out that Economic Reality can occasionally benefit a taxpayer, too.  One planned audit was canceled when a three-year review of a computer business showed that, after early profits from a software product, it became obsolete, and the taxpayer lived on savings and pursued unprofitable ventures.

To refine safeguards against auditors being too aggressive, the IRS has also scheduled them for follow-up training sessions, of two to four hours, every two weeks after the basic Economic Reality boot camp.

“If we’re not careful how we do it,” Monaco said, “we won’t be doing it for very long.  That’s when Congress will add provisions to the Taxpayer Bill of Rights.”

Four years before RRA98, he was certainly prophetic.

The newsletter editor Ellen M. Katz wanted to make sure that I had this scoop right, so she did some fact checking herself.

We asked IRS spokesman Wilson Fadely to describe the new “Economic Reality” audit program.  His reply:

“An auditor will no longer just say ‘let me see your canceled checks or cash journal.’ We’ll be looking at it a different way, by examining whether the tax return fits the economic situation.  Now, we’ll ask questions, like: ‘Are there very large interest payments or large mortgage payments and not much income?  If so, something is not right.  A lot of agents have been doing this for years.  But now the practice will be institutionalized and put in the training program for auditors to follow.”

In June 1995, I followed up with a newsletter article after trying to get more information on the program.  The IRS was beginning to sense the public was uncomfortable.  So I wrote:

When IRS Commissioner Margaret Milner Richardson was asked recently about the new audit methods that investigate taxpayer lifestyles, she shrugged off the major policy change as nothing innovative. 

“It’s the same technique we used on Al Capone” she said in a PBS interview.  So now, with the help of the auditing technique called “Economic Reality,” American citizens in the 1990s can be treated like Chicago mobsters of the 1930s.

But today, it only takes a few strokes of a computer keyboard for IRS to yield vast amounts of personal financial data on a targeted taxpayer.  “The IRS ‘culture’ as to how audits are done is changing and the ‘culture’ of our clients is also changing,” according to the training material the IRS uses to teach auditors about the new program.  The materials were released by the tax agency under a Freedom of Information Act request, but they were not obtained easily. 

In September, a FOIA request was submitted for Tax Savings Report.  Such requests are supposed to be filled in thirty days, and often are.  Five months later, after repeated letters and phone calls, IRS finally sent part of the materials.

IRS auditors learning how to conduct “Economic Reality” audits are told that “to be effective, we need to adapt” to the changing culture.  They are told to discuss various topics, including the following subjects, but the training materials do not elaborate on what should be said:

– Diversity

– Respect for Government Authority

– Influx of Immigrants

– Emphasis on Expeditious Closing (how quickly an audit is completed)

– Aggressive vs. Kinder/Gentler (approach toward taxpayers).

Auditors learn that Economic Reality “finds meaning through a process of gathering information about a taxpayer,” and “is built upon a universe of financial information about the taxpayer and their lifestyle.”  In a later session, auditors learn “to develop a picture, or profile of the taxpayer’s lifestyle and its cost.  The process is designed to compare lifestyle cost with available resources and to alert you to inconsistencies.”

Shortly after my first article was published in November 1994, the Washington Post picked up on the story.  Noted Washington Post financial writer Albert Crenshaw, in a story syndicated to other newspapers, wrote:

After years of checking W-2s and 1099s and making sure that taxpayers have receipts for their deductions, the Internal Revenue Service is adding a new weapon to its audit arsenal.  It’s called “economic reality,” and it means that IRS agents are going to start looking beyond the numbers of the return to make sure the report jibes with the taxpayer’s assets and lifestyle.” …. The agency already has begun training auditors in “economic reality” techniques, and agents will be expected to implement them as soon as they complete the course. 

IRS officials say the training includes a heavy emphasis on privacy and ethics, designed to make sure taxpayers’ rights are protected.  Nonetheless, some experts and a number of the agency’s regular critics are voicing concern.

Crenshaw’s article finished with a quote.  “This represents a fundamental shift in the philosophy behind audits,” said Pete Sepp of the National Taxpayers Union.  NTU was the publisher of the Tax Savings Report newsletter.

Later that month, financial columnist Kathy Kristof of the Los Angeles Times also reported the latest news about tax audits:

…[IRS] just launched an auditing initiative called economic reality, an expanded and improved method of nabbing people who understate their incomes.

…When these folks get audited, they’ll also find that the IRS is not focusing completely on their tax returns.  Through the wonders of computer matching, IRS agents can find out if you own a boat, a plane or a luxury car.  They can determine the size of your mortgage.  And they can subpoena your bank records to find out just how much money is going in and out of your accounts, says Bob Kamman, a Phoenix tax accountant.

(Journalists sometimes have a problem with identifying me as a lawyer.)

It wasn’t until July 28, 1996 that the New York Times discovered the issue. The story by Barbara Whitaker led with an anecdote:

When an Internal Revenue Service agent said she wanted to audit Dave and Lucille Miller’s 1993 and 1994 tax returns, the couple thought it sounded like a simple thing.

“She called my wife, asked her a few questions and said, ‘Well, you seem to be pretty well in the know of what’s going on,’ ” said Mr. Miller, an auto salvage dealer in Clearwater, Minn. ” ‘Maybe we’ll just sit down at the kitchen table and hash this out.’ “

They hashed it out for a month and never once made it into the kitchen. The meetings, at Mr. Miller’s salvage yard and at his accountant’s office, were a free‑for‑all of questions about expenditures on everything from the most mundane items, like groceries and clothing, to past vacations.

“Can you tell me just off the top of your head how many groceries you bought two years ago?” Mr. Miller asked rhetorically. “How many vacations did you take? Well, what do you call a vacation? If you went away for the weekend?”

At the heart of Mr. Miller’s frustration is what the I.R.S. calls its “financial status auditing technique,” more commonly known as an “economic reality” or “life style” audit. The principle is simple. Rather than just examine a tax return to see that all the items add up, as in a regular audit, revenue agents look at whether the figures mesh with how the person lives. If the taxpayer has a new Mercedes in the garage and declares only $20,000 in income, the I.R.S. would likely raise an eyebrow.

…Anita L. Horn, a spokeswoman for the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, said her organization had received more than 100 complaints about life‑style audits since September, when the group started keeping track. She said there were complaints about the nature of the questions and about agent demands to interview taxpayers rather than deal with their representatives. The group said the technique often led to drawn‑out audits.

Looking over some of the complaints, Ms. Horn cited a case in which an agent asked what a woman kept in her bedroom drawers. Another taxpayer was asked how much cash was buried in the backyard, and a California couple had to meet with an agent in their home when the woman was on bed rest, eight months pregnant with triplets.

As Professor Smith points out, “financial status or economic reality” audits are not defined by Code Section 7602(e).  Students of tax history, though, should realize that both Congress and IRS knew in 1998 exactly what they were talking about.



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