Occasionally tax issues arise that affect many taxpayers. Tax shelters, for example, can be sold to hundreds of individuals. It doesn't make sense to issue hundreds of identical decisions. To avoid results like the 90 virtually identical Antarctica foreign earned income exclusion decisions that have been issued in the last couple of years, the IRS and taxpayers agreed to resolve a set of cases involving the "Kersting" tax shelters. After test cases were tried, the parties agreed to "stipulate" the remaining cases based on the result of the test cases.
Then the IRS attorneys decided to stack the deck. They worked out a favorable secret settlement with the taxpayers in the test case. Perhaps not coincidentally, the taxpayers then didn't defend the shelter successfully.
The Tax Court had resisted applying the secret settlement to all similar taxpayers, but following a reversal by the Ninth Circuit, they changed their mind. The Hartman decision issued yesterday ordered the IRS to apply this secret settlement to all of the taxpayers involved in the shelter to correct "a fraud on the Court." It is no small group; according to the tax court's decision yesterday: "As of Mar. 13, 2008, 1,173 Kersting project cases remained on the Court's inventory of docketed cases in which decisions have never been entered."
The court ordered the IRS to administratively adjust the accounts of all of the Kersting project taxpayers.
Unusually, the decision had appended to it statements by IRS personnel apologizing for the secret settlements, including this from former IRS Chief Counsel B. John Williams:
The recent reversal makes clear that fraud on the court is never harmless; the Ninth Circuit decided that the appropriate remedy was to give to all of the affected taxpayers the same settlement that the IRS lawyers had granted to the lead test case. I want you to know that I fully concur with both the Ninth Circuit's outrage over the fraud and its mandate. Is there any taxpayer who could believe that he or she would receive a fair trial of their cause if IRS lawyers could secretly offer a deal in the lead test case and then offer tainted testimony to convince a court that the transaction at issue was unsound? Fraud on any court is, in my view, not only pernicious to the fair resolution of the particular case, but also threatening to fundamental democratic principles.
This seems like the correct result. If the IRS can't be trusted on this sort of thing, attorneys will insist that each case be resolved individually like the Antarctica cases, with dozens (hundreds) of identical opinions taking up court resources.
UPDATE: The TaxProf has more.
The items included in the Tax Update Blog are informational only and are not meant as tax advice. Consult with your tax advisor to determine how any item applies to your situation.
Joe Kristan writes the Tax Update items, and any opinions expressed or implied are not necessarily shared by anyone else at Roth & Company, P.C. Address questions or comments on Tax Updates to