Earlier this year, rumors surfaced that the IRS plans to clean house and phase out all attorney positions from the Office of Professional Responsibility (“OPR”), an independent arm of the Service tasked with enforcing discipline relating to tax professionals practicing before the IRS. On August 7, 2019, the Taxation Section of the American Bar Association (the “Tax Section”) sent a letter to IRS Commissioner Charles P. Rettig urging him to reconsider this housekeeping plan.
The Tax Section is absolutely correct in its position. Attorney oversight within OPR is critical to ensure OPR’s independence, to ensure the proper interpretation of legal rules applicable to tax practitioners, and to ensure that legal doctrines such as due process and privilege are not undermined.
On May 11, 2015, after serving as Director of the Office of Professional Responsibility (“OPR”) for approximately six (6) years, Ms. Karen Hawkins announced her intention to step-down and retire, effective July 11, 2015.
The OPR is responsible for interpreting and applying the Treasury Regulations governing practice before the Internal Revenue Service (commonly known as “Circular 230”). It has exclusive responsibility for overseeing practitioner conduct and implementing discipline. For this purpose, practitioners include attorneys, certified public accountants, enrolled agents, enrolled actuaries, appraisers, and all other persons representing taxpayers before the Internal Revenue Service.
The vision of the OPR is “to be the standard-bearer for integrity in tax service.” As stated on OPR’s website, its “vision, mission, strategic goals and objectives support effective tax administration by ensuring all tax practitioners, tax preparers, and other third parties in the tax system adhere to professional standards and follow the law.” Its specific goals include: increasing tax advisor awareness and understanding of Circular 230; applying the principals of due process in all investigations and proceedings; and building, training and motivating its administrative team.
Ms. Hawkins will undoubtedly be missed by her work government colleagues. She will also be missed by the tax community. During her tenure at the OPR, she not only cleared the decks of a large backlog of pending disciplinary cases, she increased tax practitioner awareness and understanding of Circular 230. Ms. Hawkins consistently made herself available to the tax community, speaking at numerous tax institutes and forums (including the Oregon Tax Institute). In a direct, clear and concise manner, she reminded practitioners of their obligations under Circular 230. Ms. Hawkins did not shy away from tough questions raised by tax practitioner audiences. Instead, she hit the questions head on and provided complete and earnest answers. Ms. Hawkins was likely responsible, in whole or in part, for the amendments to Circular 230 that alleviated the need for tax advisors to insert the silly disclaimers on all written communications that may contain federal tax advice.
While I have to assume Ms. Hawkins was a tough adversary in any disciplinary proceeding, especially given her no-nonsense approach to matters, she gave good and well-needed guidance to the tax community following amendments to Circular 230. The tax community should be thankful for all of Ms. Hawkins’ hard work and her strong dedication to the tax profession. She will be greatly missed.
As of the writing of this blog post, the Commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service had not named a successor Director. I assume that Lee Martin, the Deputy Director, will serve as acting Director until a successor is named.
When tax advisors fail to follow the rules, it tarnishes our profession. The bad behavior may subject them to discipline by the body governing their practice, the Office of Professional Responsibility and/or the criminal justice system.
Discipline may come in many flavors, depending upon the severity of the misconduct. Sanctions generally consist of censureship, suspension, disbarment, financial penalties and imprisonment.
The stakes are high. Tax advisors and their firms need to know and follow the rules, and implement systems to ensure compliance by the members of their firms.
Effective June 30, 2005, Treasury issued final regulations amending Circular 230 (“2005 Regulations”). The 2005 Regulations were specifically aimed at two goals:
- Deterring taxpayers from engaging in abusive transactions by limited or eliminating their ability to avoid penalties via inappropriate reliance on advice of tax advisors; and
- Preventing unscrupulous tax advisors and promoters from marketing abusive transactions and tax products to taxpayers based upon opinions that failed to adequately consider the law and the facts.
After the 2005 Regulations were issued, Treasury continued tinkering with the regulations to refine its approach, keenly keeping focus on these two goals. Accordingly, we have seen numerous refinements to Circular 230 in the past nine (9) years, including:
- Amendments to the 2005 Regulations published on May 19, 2005;
- Broadened authority granted by lawmakers to Treasury to expand standards relating to written advice on October 22, 2004, with the passage of the American Jobs Creation Act of 2004 (“AJCA”). In addition, the AJCA gave Treasury authority to impose monetary penalties against tax advisors who violate Circular 230;
- Amendments to Circular 230 published on February 6, 2006, in proposed form, adopting, among other things, monetary penalties for Circular 230 noncompliance. These regulations were finalized, effective September 26, 2007; and
- Amendments to the written advice provisions of Circular 230 published on October 1, 2012 in proposed form. These amendments were finalized on June 14, 2014.
Until 2005, Circular 230 was untouched for almost two decades. An enormous storm awoke Treasury from a deep sleep, causing a loud roar to permeate among lawmakers, the IRS, Treasury and the tax community. The result was the adoption of rules aimed at achieving the two goals set forth above.
The ultimate cause of the storm was the broad sweeping allegations of fraud and deception in the accounting and law professions which we saw in the early part of this millennium, including scandals involving ENRON, Global Crossing, imClone, WorldCom, Qwest, Tyco, HealthSouth and Aldelphia. Further feeding the storm were the black clouds created by the collapse of Arthur Andersen and the financial penalties assessed against and the practice limitations imposed upon KPMG. Last, but certainly not least, the investigations and lawsuits against tax advisors (and their firms) for developing and marketing abusive tax shelters, including the investigations and lawsuits leading to the demise of the large law firm of Jenkens & Gilchrist (“Jenkens”), added to these dark times.
As of June 12, 2014, with the exception of what are commonly known as “Marketed Opinions,” tax advisors and their firms no longer need separate standards governing Written Advice. Section 10.35 of Circular 230 (“C230”) has been eliminated. Consequently, the crazy, overused C230 disclaimers can go in the trash bin. No more emails to mom, dad, children or other family members, and/or friends with a federal tax disclaimer. I bet that will be somewhat of a relief to these email recipients. No longer will they find themselves looking for tax advice as a result of the prominent disclaimer in a message that has absolutely nothing to do with taxes.
Representatives of the IRS and the Office of Professional Responsibility (“OPR”) have vocalized glee about the elimination of C230 disclaimers. Karen Hawkins, Director of the OPR, told participants at a tax conference in New York last week: “I’m here to tell you that jurat, that disclaimer off your emails. It’s no longer necessary.” IRS Chief Counsel, William Wilkins, echoed the same sentiments last week when he said: “The Circular 230 legend is not merely dead, it’s really most sincerely dead.”
Treasury estimates this amendment to C230 and the removal of the corresponding compliance burden on tax advisors “should save tax practitioners [and/or their clients] a minimum of $5,333,200.”
Larry J. Brant
Larry J. Brant is a Shareholder in Foster Garvey, a law firm based out of the Pacific Northwest, with offices in Seattle, Washington; Portland, Oregon; Washington, D.C.; New York, New York, Spokane, Washington; and Beijing, China. Mr. Brant practices in the Portland office. His practice focuses on tax, tax controversy and transactions. Mr. Brant is a past Chair of the Oregon State Bar Taxation Section. He was the long-term Chair of the Oregon Tax Institute, and is currently a member of the Board of Directors of the Portland Tax Forum. Mr. Brant has served as an adjunct professor, teaching corporate taxation, at Northwestern School of Law, Lewis and Clark College. He is an Expert Contributor to Thomson Reuters Checkpoint Catalyst. Mr. Brant is a Fellow in the American College of Tax Counsel. He publishes articles on numerous income tax issues, including Taxation of S Corporations, Reasonable Compensation, Circular 230, Worker Classification, IRC § 1031 Exchanges, Choice of Entity, Entity Tax Classification, and State and Local Taxation. Mr. Brant is a frequent lecturer at local, regional and national tax and business conferences for CPAs and attorneys. He was the 2015 Recipient of the Oregon State Bar Tax Section Award of Merit.