Green Tax Break Syndicated Easements Face IRS Scrutiny

Jack Fisher has raised hundreds of millions of dollars pitching investors on real estate development projects that were never built. Fisher, an accountant-turned-developer, promoted projects such as the Preserve at Venice Harbor, near Hilton Head, S.C., where marketing illustrations showed houses on canals that evoked the famous Italian city. Instead of developing the land, he recruited investors to elaborate deals that provided them charitable tax deductions in return for donating easements for conservation.

The Internal Revenue Service, however, suspects the deals may amount to tax fraud. Fisher is at the center of a criminal probe related to these syndicated conservation easements, according to people familiar with the details, who requested anonymity to discuss a confidential matter. The investigation has already led to tax conspiracy charges against three accountants who worked with him.

A syndicated conservation easement gives dozens of investors in partnerships three choices: to build a specific development project; to hold on to the land and build later; or to donate an easement to a land trust or government, promising to forgo development. The third option entitles investors to charitable tax deductions, based on the appraised value of the land, that can be worth four or five times their investment.

Easements have been used—legitimately, and mostly by family partnerships and individuals like farmers—for decades as part of a federal push to preserve more than 30 million acres of land. Those aren’t the focus of an IRS crackdown. Instead, it’s going after promoters like Fisher who sell deals through brokers, accountants, lawyers, and tax preparers, and who market the projects that generate large tax deductions. The IRS has made these an enforcement priority, suing some promoters to shut them down and criminally investigating others.

California conservation lawyer Misti Schmidt says a typical syndicated easement used by wealthy investors is an “ugly tax-shelter scheme” that relies on grossly overvalued appraisals. “There’s so much money to be made, they just keep doing it,” says Schmidt, a partner at Conservation Partners.

Those appraisals are at the center of the legal fight around syndicated easements. Before an easement donation is made, an appraiser assigns it a value based on its highest and best use. That number is then used to calculate the tax deductions. The IRS often argues that those appraisals vastly inflate the development potential of a property, and that promoters use those valuations to market lucrative tax deductions.

Two of Fisher’s associates, the brothers Stein and Corey Agee, pleaded guilty in December to conspiring to promote fraudulent tax breaks and are cooperating with prosecutors. Although Fisher wasn’t charged or named in the Agee cases, he’s referred to as Promoter A in court documents, the people familiar with the details say. Documents reviewed by Bloomberg confirm Fisher’s role in the deals. Lawyers for Fisher didn’t respond to emails and phone calls seeking comment.

In the Stein Agee case, prosecutors say the deals were “illegal tax shelters that allowed taxpayers to buy tax deductions,” according to the charges. Appraisals were “falsely inflated,” while the conservation option was “always a foregone conclusion.” Many investors signed up after the tax year in which easements were donated, prosecutors say, even though the IRS allows deductions only in the same year a donation is made. Promoter A and others had investors backdate checks and agreements, according to the charges.

“Promoter A’s tax shelters resulted in a massive evasion of taxes,” the charges state. In all, more than 1,500 investors received $1.2 billion in fraudulent tax deductions, prosecutors said. At one point, Promoter A told Stein Agee that he met with several co-conspirators to make sure they were on the “same page” about late investments, according to the charges. Promoter A proposed that Agee could falsely suggest that backdated checks weren’t deposited because they were “lost” on someone’s desk. Lawyers for the Agees declined to comment.

Nationwide, the IRS has challenged $21 billion in tax deductions claimed for syndicated easements from 2016 to 2018, saying it’s auditing 28,000 taxpayers. Former President Donald Trump has donated several easements, including two under scrutiny by New York state authorities.

“The IRS fully supports the benefit of legitimate conservation easements around this country,” IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig told Congress in March. “It has done tremendous things for farmers and others. Our problem is with the abusive syndicated easements.”

The IRS crackdown comes amid a battle in Congress that pits conservation groups and national appraisal organizations against promoters of syndicated easements. Conservation groups want legislation that would bar investors from claiming deductions worth more than two and a half times their initial investment. Promoters have been blocking that fix for years.

“The IRS’s current take-no-prisoners litigation strategy is also going after minor technical flaws that arise in all easements, not just syndications,” says Schmidt, the conservation lawyer. “Legitimate easements are now getting disallowed.”

Fisher, who’s in his late 60s, grew up on a small-town farm in Marshall, N.C., and still speaks in a soft Southern drawl. The son of a truck driver and homemaker, he graduated with a degree in accounting from nearby Mars Hill College in 1974 before joining the IRS. Fisher then became a certified public accountant, worked for Price Waterhouse, and joined a firm that moved him to Atlanta to work with the National Football League’s Falcons.

Later, he took a job at an accounting firm with the Agee brothers’ father, Edward Agee. “I got a lot of good experience,” Fisher testified at a trial after a real estate broker sued him, claiming the developer owed him a commission. Fisher said he met people who “could refer you to business: bankers and things like that.”

He got into development by auditing construction companies, and later began assembling his own investment deals, founding Preserve Communities about two decades ago.

Fisher was adept at raising money, says Anthony Antonino, a real estate consultant who helped with the sale of 800 acres in North Carolina for $14.75 million to entities controlled by Fisher and a wealthy investor. “Jack knows where the money’s at, and he knows how to get it,” Antonino says.

Some of Fisher’s wealthy investors were involved in equestrian events, say people familiar with the matter. His family owned a 40-acre show stable in Alpharetta, Ga., according to a 2013 story in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. His then-wife, Libba, and two of their children won several titles competing in elite hunter and jumper events, according to records maintained by the U.S. Equestrian Federation.

He was a hands-on developer, says Mark Brooks, a civil engineer who helped Fisher build projects. “He was out there walking the roads and figuring out site lots,” Brooks says. “He was real proud when he did the developments. He felt he was doing things to help out Madison County, which was a pretty poor county.”

He also branched out to the Western U.S., buying a 1,088-acre ranch near Reno, Nev. In late 2018 a Georgia corporation Fisher formed donated an easement covering 812 acres to the North American Land Trust. Investors got $51.2 million in deductions, according to court filings. They put up $10 million, his partner told planners in Nevada’s Washoe County.

Months later, Fisher pursued permission to develop 38 homes on land not covered by the easement. He showed up at a rural advisory board meeting in July 2019 wearing a cowboy hat and flanked by ranch hands, according to a resident. When pressed, Fisher backed down.

“We have no plans to do anything with that property other than to make it part of the ranch,” Fisher said at the recorded meeting. In the face of stated opposition by planners, he withdrew his application.

The Agee brothers, whose father died in 2009, helped promote some of Fisher’s deals. At the proposed Preserve at Venice Harbor development, $179.8 million in tax deductions were claimed by the 390 investors who chose a conservation easement instead of building homes, court documents show. That was more than four times what they put in.

By 2018, less than two years after the IRS began targeting syndicated easements as tax shelters, Fisher was under investigation, the people with knowledge of the matter say. “You have to be very, very careful that these look like real estate investments as compared to, you know, basically a tax shelter,” Promoter A told an agent posing as an investor, according to the charges against Stein Agee.

Fisher continued to work with the Agees through last year, the people say. In November, Promoter A left a handwritten note for Stein Agee saying he’d been “cleaning up the books,” the charges state. About the same time, a video was uploaded to the Preserve Communities Vimeo account.

Fisher talks about his career while viewers see images of forests, mountains, and rivers, and of Fisher himself sitting on a deck, and then feeding a horse. “I hope the people who live in our communities gain a greater connection to nature, to slow down in life, to realize what’s really important,” he says. “We only have so many years here on the planet, and feeling good about what you’ve done with your life.”

— With assistance by Kaustuv Basu, Neil Weinberg, and Elise Young

By: David Voreacos

Source: Green Tax Break Syndicated Easements Face IRS Scrutiny – Bloomberg

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The IRS Has 35 Million Tax Returns In Backlog. Here’s How To Track Your Money

The IRS is facing numerous challenges that have caused setbacks in issuing tax refunds this year. A recent National Taxpayer Advocate report confirmed that some 35 million tax returns are yet to be processed and explained the long delays. The tax agency is tasked with more than usual this time of year. Many 2020 tax returns are requiring adjustments or corrections, disbursing stimulus checks, calculating other tax credits and refunding overpayment on 2020 unemployment compensation.

And then there’s the unprecedented situation brought on by the pandemic. The IRS is taking more than the standard 21 days to send refunds — some taxpayers are waiting months. It’s hard to get live assistance by phone, as many callers wait on hold or aren’t connected due to high call volumes. So what if you need your tax money to cover debt or household expenses? How can you check the status of your money without calling the IRS?

We’ll walk you through how to see your personalized refund status online through IRS tracking tools and what to do if you’re waiting for a tax refund on unemployment benefits, as well. For more on economic relief aid, here are some ways to know if you qualify for the child tax credit payments that start next week. If you’re curious about future stimulus payments or the latest infrastructure deal, we can tell you about that, too. This story has been recently updated.

Why is there a tax refund delay this year?

Because of the pandemic, the IRS ran at restricted capacity in 2020, which put a strain on its ability to process tax returns and created a massive backlog. The combination of the shutdown, three rounds of stimulus payments, challenges with paper-filed returns and the tasks related to implementing new tax laws and credits caused a “perfect storm,” according to a National Taxpayer Advocate review of the 2021 filing season to Congress.

The IRS is open again and currently processing mail, tax returns, payments, refunds and correspondence, but limited resources continue to cause delays. Earlier in the tax season, some refunds were already taking longer than 21 days, including those that required manual processing. The IRS said it’s also taking more time for 2020 tax returns that need review, such as determining recovery rebate credit amounts for the first and second stimulus checks — or figuring earned income tax credit and additional child tax credit amounts.

Here’s a list of reasons your refund might be delayed:

  • Your tax return has errors.
  • It’s incomplete.
  • Your refund is suspected of identity theft or fraud.
  • You filed for the earned income tax credit or additional child tax credit.
  • Your return needs further review.
  • Your return includes Form 8379 (PDF), injured spouse allocation — this could take up to 14 weeks to process.

If the delay is due to a necessary tax correction made to a recovery rebate credit, earned income tax or additional child tax credit claimed on your return, the IRS will send you an explanation. If there’s a problem that needs to be fixed, the IRS will first try to proceed without contacting you. However, if it needs any more information, it will write you a letter.

How can you track the status of your refund online?

To check the status of your income tax refund using the IRS tracker tools, you’ll need to give some information: your Social Security number or Individual Taxpayer Identification Number, your filing status — single, married or head of household — and your refund amount in whole dollars, which you can find on your tax return. Also, make sure it’s been at least 24 hours (or up to four weeks if you mailed your return) before you start tracking your refund.

Using the IRS tool Where’s My Refund, go to the Get Refund Status page, enter your SSN or ITIN, your filing status and your exact refund amount, then press Submit. If you entered your information correctly, you’ll be taken to a page that shows your refund status. If not, you may be asked to verify your personal tax data and try again. If all the information looks correct, you’ll need to enter the date you filed your taxes, along with whether you filed electronically or on paper.

The IRS also has a mobile app called IRS2Go that checks your tax refund status. The IRS updates the data in this tool overnight, so if you don’t see a status change after 24 hours or more, check back the following day. Once your return and refund are approved, you’ll receive a personalized date to expect your money.

Where’s My Refund has information on the most recent tax refund that the IRS has on file within the past two years, so if you’re looking for return information from previous years you’ll need to contact the IRS for further help.

How can you check the status of unemployment tax refunds online?

Taxpayers who collected unemployment benefits in 2020 and filed their tax returns early have started to receive additional tax refunds from the IRS. Under new rules from the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, millions of people who treated their unemployment compensation as income are eligible for a tax break and could get a hefty sum of money back.

However, it’s not easy to track the status of that refund using the online tools above. To find out when the IRS processed your refund and for how much, we recommend locating your tax transcript by logging in to your account and viewing the transactions listed there. We explain how to do that step-by-step.

What is the wait time for a standard tax refund?

The IRS usually issues tax refunds within three weeks, but some taxpayers have been waiting months to receive their payments. If there are any errors, or if you filed a claim for an earned income tax credit or the child tax credit, the wait could be pretty lengthy. If there is an issue holding up your return, the resolution “depends on how quickly and accurately you respond, and the ability of IRS staff trained and working under social distancing requirements to complete the processing of your return,” according to its website.

The date you get your tax refund also depends on how you filed your return. For example, with refunds going into your bank account via direct deposit, it could take an additional five days for your bank to post the money to your account. This means if it took the IRS the full 21 days to issue your check and your bank five days to post it, you could be waiting a total of 26 days to get your money. If you submitted your tax return by mail, the IRS says it could take six to eight weeks for your tax refund to arrive.

What do the IRS tax refund status messages mean?

Both IRS tools (online and mobile app) will show you one of three messages to explain your tax return status.

  • Received: The IRS now has your tax return and is working to process it.
  • Approved: The IRS has processed your return and confirmed the amount of your refund, if you’re owed one.
  • Sent: Your refund is now on its way to your bank via direct deposit or as a paper check sent to your mailbox. (Here’s how to change the address on file if you moved.)

What does an IRS TREAS 310 deposit mean?

If you receive your tax refund by direct deposit, you may see IRS TREAS 310 for the transaction. The 310 identifies the transaction as an IRS tax refund. This would also apply to the case of those receiving an automatic adjustment on their tax return or a refund due to new legislation on tax-free unemployment benefits. You may also see TAX REF in the description field for a refund.

If you see a 449 instead, it means your refund has been offset for delinquent debt.

What is the IRS phone number to check on a tax refund?

The IRS received 167 million calls this tax season, which is four times the number of calls in 2019. And based on the recent report, only seven percent of calls reached a telephone agent for help. While you could try calling the IRS to check your status, the agency’s live phone assistance is extremely limited right now because the IRS says it’s working hard to get through the backlog. You shouldn’t file a second tax return or contact the IRS about the status of your return.

Even though the chances of getting live assistance are slim, the IRS says you should only call if it’s been 21 days or more since you filed your taxes online, or if the Where’s My Refund tool tells you to contact the IRS. Here’s the number to call: 800-829-1040.

Why will a refund come by mail instead of direct deposit?

There are a couple of reasons that your refund would be mailed to you. Your money can only be electronically deposited into a bank account with your name, your spouse’s name or a joint account. If that’s not the reason, you may be getting multiple refund checks, and the IRS can only direct deposit up to three refunds to one account. Additional refunds must be mailed. Lastly, your bank may reject the deposit and this would be the IRS’ next best way to refund your money quickly.

For more information about your 2020 taxes, here’s the latest on federal unemployment benefits on your taxes and everything to know about the third stimulus check.

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Source: The IRS has 35 million tax returns in backlog. Here’s how to track your money – CNET

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Critics:

Tax returns in the United States are reports filed with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) or with the state or local tax collection agency (California Franchise Tax Board, for example) containing information used to calculate income tax or other taxes. Tax returns are generally prepared using forms prescribed by the IRS or other applicable taxing authority.

Under the Internal Revenue Code returns can be classified as either tax returns or information returns, although the term “tax return” is sometimes used to describe both kinds of returns in a broad sense. Tax returns, in the more narrow sense, are reports of tax liabilities and payments, often including financial information used to compute the tax. A very common federal tax form is IRS Form 1040.

A tax return provides information so that the taxation authority can check on the taxpayer’s calculations, or can determine the amount of tax owed if the taxpayer is not required to calculate that amount. In contrast, an information return is a declaration by some person, such as a third party, providing economic information about one or more potential taxpayers.

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