After recent rumors of a turnaround for financial whistleblowers seeking rewards under the Internal Revenue Service's (IRS) whistleblower reward program, it is fitting that one of its rare financial awards goes to United Swiss Bank (UBS) whistleblower Bradley Birkenfeld. Not only is Birkenfeld the biggest tax fraud whistleblower in history (who handed the IRS key information on a silver platter), but he is especially deserving as he is the only person to go to prison among the thousands of Swiss bank account tax cheats he exposed. (Easy to understand now that we have a presidential candidate who hides money in offshore tax havens.)
Birkenfeld was released from prison in August after an usually harsh sentence. Despite the fact that Birkenfeld shattered 75 years of Swiss bank secrecy when he approached investigators about a UBS tax evasion service involving thousands of illegal offshore accounts--held by some of your favorite actors, politicians, and sports figures--and billions of U.S. dollars. Instead of targeting UBS kingpin Martin Liechti, the Justice Department turned on Birkenfeld. To add insult to injury, the prosecutor, Kevin Downing, is now in private practice at Miller & Chevalier defending the very tax cheats Birkenfeld turned in.
Until recently, to say the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) had been slow to implement the IRS whistleblower reward program would have been an understatement. The IRS' implementation (or lack thereof) was so extreme that this summer it caused longtime whistleblower supporter Charles Grassley (R-IA) to object to two Department of Treasury nominees.
The award for Birkenfeld marks a much-needed turnaround for the IRS' whistleblower office, and will hopefully encourage other financial whistleblowers to come forward.
I wrote extensively about Birkenfeld's case during his prosecution and sentencing. (here, here, here, and here). After complaining internally to UBS for two years, in June 2007 Birkenfeld voluntarily met with Justice Department prosecutors and an IRS Special Agent during three full days in which he provided unprecedented and voluminous information about UBS’s cross-border and offshore business activities, the UBS offices and private bankers that were directly involved, and the details of 19,000 UBS accounts for its American customers.
Birkenfeld had the potential to change an entire industry designed to evade U.S. taxes. Instead, the U.S. has been soft on UBS: letting bank kingpin Martin Liechti go free; under-fining the bank only $780 million for a multi-billion dollar fraud; settling for only 4,500 customer names of the 52,000 our government originally sought; and setting up an amateurish amnesty program that allowed the worst offenders to avoid criminal liability by paying fines. But worse, the Justice Department’s treatment of Birkenfeld is chilling would-be financial whistleblowers from coming forward, and will continue to do so for decades, to the detriment of the U.S. economy and all taxpayers—something that should be inconceivable during a global financial crisis.
The award for Birkenfeld is hopefully just the beginning for the burgeoning IRS whistleblower reward program, which, by encouraging disclosures from financial whistleblowers, will likely save the taxpayers billions.