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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Tax Refund Chart Can Help You Guess When You’ll Receive Your Money In 2021

Hear that? It’s the sound of millions of taxpayers cheering across the country: the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has announced the open of the tax filing season. That date is February 12, 2021.

If you want to get your refund as fast as possible, the IRS recommends that you e-file your tax return and use direct deposit (be sure to double-check those account numbers before you send your return). If you file by paper, it will take longer. According to the IRS, eight out of 10 taxpayers get their refunds by using direct deposit.

Assuming no delays, here are my best guesses for expected tax refunds based on filing dates and information from the IRS. I can’t stress enough that these are simply educated guesses. I like math and charts as much as the next girl, but there are a number of factors that could affect your tax refund (keep reading)

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refund chart
KPE

* No matter when you filed your tax return, if you claimed the EITC or the ACTC, don’t forget to take into consideration that hold date.

My numbers are based on an expected IRS receipt date beginning on the open of tax season, February 12, 2021, through the close of tax season on April 15, 2021. To keep the chart manageable, I’ve assumed the IRS received your e-filed tax return on the first business day of the week; that’s usually a Monday, but if there’s a holiday (like President’s Day), I’ve skipped ahead until Tuesday. The same logic holds true for issuing refunds. In reality, the IRS issues tax refunds throughout the week, so the date could move forward or backward depending on the day your return was received.

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Other sites may have different numbers but remember they’re just guessing, too: The IRS no longer makes their tax refund processing chart public.

Do not rely on any tax refund chart—this one included—for date-specific planning like a large purchase or a paying back a loan. 

Remember that if you claim the earned-income tax credit (EITC) and the additional child tax credit (ACTC), the IRS must wait until February 15 to begin issuing refunds to taxpayers who claim the EITC or the ACTC (that’s pretty close to the start date). Don’t forget to consider regular processing times for banks and factor in weekends and the President’s Day holiday. The IRS expects to see tax refunds begin reaching those claiming EITC and ACTC during the first week of March for those who file electronically with direct deposit and there are no issues with their tax returns.

If you want to get your tax refund as fast as possible, the IRS recommends that you e-file your tax return and use direct deposit. Keep in mind that if you e-file, the day that the IRS accepts your return may not be the day that you hit send or give the green light to your preparer. Check your e-filing confirmation for the actual date that the IRS accepts your return.

If you file by paper, it will take longer. Processing times can take more than four to six weeks in the best of times (and these are not the best of times) since the IRS has to manually input data. Don’t forget about postal holidays, too, when counting on the mail. There’s just one official postal holiday during tax season, Monday, February 15 (President’s Day), and one that follows just after tax season, Monday, May 31 (Memorial Day).

Even if you request direct deposit, you may still receive a paper check. Since 2014, the IRS has limited the number of refunds that can be deposited into a single account or applied to a prepaid debit card to three. Taxpayers who exceed the limit will instead receive a paper check. Additionally, the IRS will only issue a refund by direct deposit into an account in your own name, your spouse’s name or both if it’s a joint account. If there’s an issue with the account, the IRS will send a paper check.

If you’re looking for more information about the timing of your tax refund, don’t reach out to your tax professional. Instead, the IRS encourages you to use the “Get Refund Status” tool. Have your Social security number or ITIN, filing status and exact refund amount handy. Refund updates should appear 24 hours after your e-filing has been accepted or four weeks after you mailed your paper return. The IRS expect that the refund tool will be updated for those claiming EITC and ACTC, beginning on February 22, 2021. Otherwise, the IRS updates the site once per day, usually overnight, so there’s no need to check more than once during the day.

If you’re looking for tax information on the go, you can check your refund status with IRS2Go, the official mobile app of the IRS. The app includes a tax refund status tracker.

Remember that the IRS will not contact you by phone or by email regarding your refund. If you receive a call from someone claiming to be from the IRS or a debt collection agency regarding your tax refund, hang up immediately: it is a scam. Follow me on Twitter or LinkedIn. Check out my website

Kelly Phillips Erb

Kelly Phillips Erb Years ago, I found myself sitting in law school in Moot Court wearing an oversized itchy blue suit. It was a horrible experience. In a desperate attempt to avoid anything like that in the future, I enrolled in a tax course. I loved it. I signed up for another. Before I knew it, in addition to my JD, I earned an LL.M Taxation. While at law school, I interned at the estates attorney division of the IRS. At IRS, I participated in the review and audit of federal estate tax returns. At one such audit, opposing counsel read my report, looked at his file and said, “Gentlemen, she’s exactly right.” I nearly fainted. It was a short jump from there to practicing, teaching, writing and breathing tax. Just like that, Taxgirl® was born.

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Gregg Learning

Once the tax liability has been determined, we must consider the final three items in income tax preparation: tax credits, other taxes, and payments. When an overpayment occurs, the taxpayer has the option of receiving a refund or applying the amount of the overpayment to next year’s estimated tax.

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What Is Really The Tax Filing Season

The 2020 tax filing season is delayed until February 12, so the Internal Revenue Service can do additional programming and testing following the December tax law changes.

“If filing season were opened without the correct programming in place, then there could be a delay in issuing refunds to taxpayers,” the Internal Revenue Service said in a press release. “These changes ensure that eligible people will receive any remaining stimulus money as a Recovery Rebate Credit when they file their 2020 tax return.”

The filing season usually opens in late January when the IRS begins accepting and processing returns. Last year, the season started on January 27.“While I am disappointed that this year’s filing season will begin later than usual, I recognize that the IRS has faced extraordinary challenges throughout the COVID crisis,” Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard E. Neal (D-MA) said in a statement on Friday.

The $900 billion stimulus deal and government-funding bill that passed together at the end of December included some key tax changes for the 2020 tax year.

Eligible taxpayers who didn’t receive the second round of stimulus payments included in the latest stimulus bill or didn’t receive the full amount they were entitled to can claim them on their 2020 tax returns. They can also claim the first round of payments. How the Child Tax Credit and the Earned Income Tax Credit are calculated for the 2020 tax year also changed under the stimulus deal.

Under the government-funding bill, medical expenses now must exceed only 7.5% of adjusted gross income to be taken as an itemized deduction. Before, that threshold was 10%.

Read more: Here’s what to do if you haven’t gotten your stimulus check

The IRS urges taxpayers to file electronically and use direct deposit as a payment method as soon as possible. The agency anticipates 9 out of 10 taxpayers will. receive their refund within 21 days if they file their returns electronically, used direct deposit, and no issues popped up with their return.

People eligible for free tax filing can begin their taxes now and the returns will be transmitted to the IRS on February 12. These are providers participating in the IRS Free File for 2021:

  • 1040Now
  • ezTaxReturn.com
  • FreeTaxReturn.com
  • FileYourTaxes.com
  • Intuit (TurboTax)
  • On-Line Taxes (OLT.com)
  • TaxAct
  • TaxHawk (FreeTaxUSA)
  • TaxSlayer

Read more:

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By: Denitsa Tsekova

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Read MoreBrought to you byTurboTax.comCapital Gains and LossesWhat is a capital asset, and how much tax do you have to pay when you sell one at a profit? Find out how to report your capital gains and losses on your tax return with these tips from TurboTax.

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IRS & Global Tax Enforcers Expand War on Cryptocurrency Fraud

Tax authorities, both domestic and abroad, have been continuously building an arsenal of tools and experts to monitor and audit crypto transactions. This increased weaponry has led to a growing number of international arrests by the Joint Chiefs of Global Tax Enforcement (J5) and the US Department of Justice (DOJ), with each member organization arresting individuals allegedly involved in crypto fraud, and/or seizing funds from their activities.

Not surprisingly, the US Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is keeping pace with these efforts and closing in on those who may have attempted to take advantage of the perceived anonymity of these transactions to evade taxes. As these tax authorities continue their collective efforts, the question becomes: who will be the next target of this expanding arsenal?

Crypto tracing for hire

Public records reveal that the IRS and other federal agencies have recently entered into agreements with a number of private cryptocurrency analytics companies to gain access to certain blockchain tracing software. This is unsurprising, given the US government’s recent outreach to members of the cryptocurrency community. For example, the IRS recently sought assistance from several cryptocurrency tax software companies for the audits of tax returns involving on-chain and off-chain cryptocurrency transactions.1

The statements of work for these arrangements provide that the IRS “is engaging outside contractors to assist our revenue agents in calculating taxpayers’ gains or losses as a result of their transactions involving virtual currency.” The DOJ is also advertising positions for crypto experts to assist law enforcement with “undercover operations on the Dark Web and undercover cryptocurrency transactions, technical skills and technology to perform block-chain analysis to trace transactions.”2

The IRS Criminal Investigation Division (IRS CI), the largest federal law enforcement agency in the US Department of Treasury, is also expanding its crypto capabilities. As part of its Cryptocurrency Initiative, IRS CI recently issued a public request for tools related to cryptocurrency, including applications “to more easily trace privacy coins and other protocols that provide anonymity to illicit actors.” This coordinated effort by the IRS and other federal agencies to acquire crypto talent forecasts a looming crackdown on the use of virtual currency for illicit purposes, and those that facilitate its use for those purposes.

International enforcement: Pooling of resources

The global tax community has also pooled its resources to target crypto fraudsters. The J5, which consists of the leaders of the tax enforcement agencies in Australia, Canada, the Netherlands, England, and the United States, was formed to investigate and combat cross-border tax and money laundering threats, including cybercrime, cryptocurrency, and enablers of global tax crimes. This has led to the J5 making several recent arrests involving certain cryptocurrency transactions. One of the J5’s stated missions is to “collaborate internationally to reduce the growing threat to tax administrations posed by cryptocurrencies and cybercrime and to make the most of data and technology.”

The J5 has held annual events known as “Challenges,” where investigators, cryptocurrency experts, and data scientists from the member nations exchange data and techniques. These combined efforts have led to an uptick in enforcement activity by member nations, including:

Two men were arrested in February 2020 in the Netherlands on suspicion of money laundering using cryptocurrencies via the subject crypto service provider. This arrest was the apparent culmination of the Dutch Fiscal Information and Investigation Service’s investigation of a crypto service provider discussed during the 2019 Challenge. The amount laundered was approximately US$118,800, indicating that the J5’s targets are not limited to the million-dollar players.

A Romanian programmer in Germany was arrested and pleaded guilty in July 2020, for conspiring to commit wire fraud and offering and selling unregistered securities. The activity is connected with the programmer’s role in a cryptocurrency mining scheme that defrauded investors of at least US$722 million worth of bitcoin.

The DOJ has also continued its enforcement efforts in earnest. Just last month, the DOJ:

  • Announced the seizure of millions of dollars in bitcoin associated with financing of terrorist organizations, including al-Qassam Brigades, al-Qaeda, and Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS). The operation involved, among other things, an investigation into certain alleged Syrian charities and also led to the unsealing of criminal charges for two Turkish individuals. Acting United States Attorney Michael R. Sherwin commented that this seizure, the largest of its kind, “reflect[s] the resolve . . . to target and dismantle these sophisticated cyber-terrorism and money laundering actors across the globe. While these individuals believe they operate anonymously in the digital space, we have the skill and resolve to find, fix and prosecute these actors under the full extent of the law.”
  • Filed a civil forfeiture complaint related to two hacks of virtual currency exchanges by North Korean actors. The complaint alleges that these North Korean players stole millions of dollars’ worth of cryptocurrency and then laundered the same through Chinese over-the-counter crypto traders. Acting Assistant Attorney General Brian C. Rabbitt of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division proclaimed, “Today’s action publicly exposes the ongoing connections between North Korea’s cyber-hacking program and a Chinese cryptocurrency money laundering network.”
  • The first hack dates back to July 2019 when an agent tied to North Korea allegedly stole over US$272,000 worth of crypto. This agent then engaged in “chain hopping,” a process whereby the user converts cryptocurrency into other forms of crypto in order to make the illegal transactions more difficult to trace. Then, in September 2019, another agent with ties to North Korea hacked a US-based company, stealing nearly US$2.5 million in crypto.

Avoiding the land mines and risks: The time to act is now

The message is ominous. The recent J5 activity and the US government’s stockpiling of crypto experts and tracing software leaves little doubt that tax enforcement efforts in the crypto space is ramping up. Indeed, in its February 18, 2020, newsletter, the J5 warned that “it cannot be ruled out that more international investigations by the J5 countries will follow” from the data sharing at the Challenges.

At home, the DOJ, IRS, and IRS CI remain laser focused on abusive crypto schemes, as evidenced by their call to arms for crypto experts and tracing software. While the above DOJ actions focus on anti-money laundering activity, they demonstrate a growing familiarity with these systems which will lead to future cases in other areas, including tax evasion.

Thus, any company operating in this high-risk industry should consider whether its compliance measures are adequate to protect its systems from being used, purposefully or not, to further activity that may become the focus of the government’s increasing scrutiny in this space. This is especially so in light of the DOJ’s updated guidance for corporate compliance programs places greater emphasis on continuous data driven compliance programs that are responsive to industry risks.


Footnotes

1 Hamza Ali and Allyson Versprille, IRS Seeking Private Companies to Aid With Cryptocurrency Audits, Bloomberg Law: Tax 2 Dark Web and Cryptocurrency International Computer Hacking and Intellectual Property Attorney Advisor

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