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Bradley Birkenfeld, a former banker at the Swiss banking giant UBS, received a record-setting reward of $104 million from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) for blowing the whistle on the bank’s systematic efforts to woo wealthy Americans investors and then help them evade taxes. Birkenfeld’s revelations resulted in UBS paying a $780 million fine to the US government, and the recovery of more than $5 billion from American taxpayers took part in the IRS’s amnesty program to avoid criminal charges for their own offshore tax evasion.
Birkenfeld participated in the UBS scheme (he served jail time and is now under house arrest). His insider disclosures led the IRS to other UBS bankers who had persuaded wealthy Americans to place $20 billion of assets in UBS in order to facilitate tax evasion that — obviously — boosted those clients’ returns. The IRS has charged two dozen offshore bankers and 50 American taxpayers with crimes, and at least 11 banks are still under criminal investigation.
The record payout to Birkenfeld is part of the IRS Whistleblower program that provides a substantial financial incentive, up to 30 percent of the taxes recovered, to encourage tipsters to come forward with information about tax evasion. This program is a smart piece of the IRS’s larger strategy to combat the estimated $40 to $70 billion in individual offshore tax evasion each year.
While the effort to combat offshore tax evasion has revved up over the past couple years, the IRS still lacks the tools it needs to fully confront evasion. To help fix this, Senator Carl Levin has proposed the Stop Tax Haven Abuse Act, which, among other things, would allow the Treasury to put more pressure on financial institutions that don’t cooperate with US tax enforcement. In addition, the Senate still needs to override Senator Rand Paul’s block and ratify the US-Swiss tax treaty so that the IRS can begin collecting critical information from Swiss banks about US tax evaders.
Even with the many hurdles the IRS faces, Stephen Kohn, the Executive Director of the National Whistleblowers Center, said that it had been a good day in the fight against tax evasion because the IRS sent “104 million messages to banks around the world – stop enabling tax cheats or you will get caught.”