(Bloomberg) Bradley Birkenfeld, the former UBS AG banker who told the Internal Revenue Service how the bank helped thousands of Americans evade taxes, secured an IRS award of $104 million, an amount his lawyers said may be the largest ever for an individual U.S. whistleblower.
Birkenfeld told authorities how UBS bankers came to the U.S. to woo rich Americans, managed $20 billion of their assets, and helped them cheat the IRS. He pleaded guilty to conspiracy in 2008, a year after reporting the bank’s conduct to the Justice Department, U.S. Senate, IRS and Securities and Exchange Commission. He was released from prison Aug. 1.
The award is the first issued under the IRS tax whistle- blower law, according to his attorneys, Stephen M. Kohn and Dean A. Zerbe, of the Washington-based National Whistleblowers Center.
“The IRS sent 104 million messages to whistle-blowers around the world—that there is now a safe and secure way to report tax fraud,” the lawyers said in a statement.
UBS avoided prosecution in the U.S. by agreeing to pay $780 million, disclosing data on more than 250 Swiss accounts, and admitting it helped foster tax evasion. It later agreed to hand over data on another 4,450 accounts. Since Birkenfeld came forward, at least 33,000 Americans have voluntarily disclosed offshore accounts to the IRS, generating more than $5 billion.
“Today the IRS sent a message to every American taxpayer who still has an illegal offshore account,” Kohn said. “Turn yourself in while there is still an amnesty program. Turn yourself in before your banker does.”
Birkenfeld, 47, worked at Zurich-based UBS, the largest Swiss bank, for five years. He sought a reward from the IRS of as much as 30 percent of any taxes the agency recovered as a result of his whistle-blowing activities.
He began serving a 40-month sentence in January 2010 at Schuylkill Federal Correctional Institution in Minersville, Pa. He received good-time credit that reduced his term, according to his lawyers. He is now in home confinement, and seeking a presidential pardon, Kohn said.
The IRS said in a statement Tuesday that “the whistleblower statute provides a valuable tool to combat tax noncompliance, and this award reflects our commitment to the law.”
The Government Accountability Office found last year that the program moved too slowly.
The IRS whistleblower program—created by Congress in 2006 to boost tax revenue by giving incentives to tipsters—had become the place where allegations of tax were left unaddressed, critics said. Over the past five years, more than 1,300 claims were filed against almost 10,000 companies and individuals, alleging tax underpayments of at least $2 million apiece.
Just three awards had been paid through June 19. The IRS won’t disclose the total dollar amount. Taxpayers annually owe $385 billion more than the IRS is able to collect, the agency said.
In contrast, the U.S. Treasury has recovered more than $21 billion since 1986 due to whistleblower tips under a similar law that covers other federal agencies.
The IRS is “demoralizing whistle-blowers,” Senator Charles Grassley, who sponsored the whistleblower law, wrote to Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner in April.
“The IRS does not have a problem attracting whistle blowers. The IRS’s current problem is processing and compensating whistle-blowers in a timely manner,” said Grassley, an Iowa Republican. As a result, “I am now concerned that whistleblowers will stop coming forward.”
Whistleblower claims “can take years to go through the IRS review and award determination process,” and the IRS doesn’t collect enough information on why claims are rejected, the Government Accountability Office said in a report last year.
The program hasn’t met expectations, IRS officials said in interviews earlier this year. “It’s fair to say the whistleblower program isn’t where we would like it yet,” said Steven T. Miller, IRS deputy commissioner for services and enforcement, who oversees the whistleblower office. “And I think it’s fair to say we are working hard on it.”
The IRS doesn’t talk to whistleblowers more frequently because of concerns about violating strict laws protecting taxpayer privacy, Miller said. He attributed the slow pace to taxpayers appealing IRS rulings. The agency says prospective whistleblowers should expect to wait as long as seven years for an award.
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