October 6, 2005

Our Tax System's "Wonderland"

The Wall Street Journal:

Contrary to what has been reported in the media, however, the IRS does not "ban" tax shelters. Whether a shelter qualifies as a tax deduction is, like any other point of law, adjudicated in court. But BLIPS, FLIP, OPIS and the other tax shelters in this case have never been brought before a judge, so their legality and legitimacy has never been settled as a point of law.

Never. The way tax law has usually developed in this country is that the IRS issues its point of view on a shelter, putting taxpayers who use it on notice. If the IRS then takes the taxpayer to court over the shelter, he has the chance to respond before a judge, who makes a ruling and precedents are thus established. In this case, the IRS has called in the prosecutors first.

This in itself is striking. Despite some recent legal setbacks, the IRS has an excellent track record of obtaining favorable rulings on tax shelters it dislikes. Yet no taxpayer has been brought to court over these shelters, and no judge has ruled on whether they "work," in the jargon of the tax-shelter business. In America, last we checked, the accused are innocent until proven guilty. That gives this KPMG trial an Alice-in-Wonderland quality; the accused are on trial for promoting a fraudulent tax shelter that has never been proved to be fraudulent in the first place.

This is not the first time the Justice Department has taken this route, and recent history suggests it may have a tough road ahead. Last November, Justice froze $500 million in assets at Xelan, a charitable trust set up for doctors in California, alleging that the trust was a vehicle for tax fraud. Six weeks later, the Federal Court for the Southern District of California threw out the case, noting, among other shortcomings, that the prosecutors could not show that any court had ever ruled that Xelan's activities were illegal under the tax code.

Posted by James Zellmer at October 6, 2005 6:50 AM | Subscribe to this site via RSS:
Posted to Politics | Taxes