Business Leaders Serve Jail Time For Employment Tax Crimes


Business owners and leaders of companies caught cheating on employment tax obligations increasingly face prison sentences for allowing their companies to fail to withhold, account for, report and pay over to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) federal income tax, as well as the employees’ share of social security and Medicare taxes (collectively known as FICA taxes) and the employer’s share of FICA taxes in accordance with the Internal Revenue Code (Code). The lengthening list of business leaders nailed for their company’s employment tax violations sends a clear warning to other business owners and operators to ensure their businesses don’t get caught shirking on their own employment tax obligations.

Whether for aggressively misclassifying common law employees as contractors, underreporting wages, or other deliberate or other means, willful violations with employer income and FICA tax requirements historically has been common. Sadly, many employers continue to engaged in these activities in blissful ignorance of the Justice Department’s high priority employment tax fraud investigation and prosecution that already has produced an impressive and growing number of federal grand jury criminal tax fraud indictments, convictions and sentences across the country.  With this priority enforcement continuing, business owners and leaders should act to reduce their own personal susceptibility to potential tax fraud and other liability by carefully assessing and documenting their efforts to verify the adequacy of their own company’s worker classification and income and employment tax withholding and payment practices.

October Indictments Of Staffing Firm Owner Operators

The October successes of the Tax Division alone demonstrate the dangers owneres and executives face if their company cheats on employment tax obligations.  These sucesses included securing separate federal grand jury criminal indictments against staffing business operators in New York and North Carolina.  On October 24, for instance, the Justice Department announced that a New York grand jury had issued criminal tax indictments against the owner/operator of a Long Island City, New York temporary employment staffing businesses including PTP Staffing Associates Inc. (PTP), and PPS Associates Inc. (PPS).  The indictments charge that as the alleged sole owner of PTP and PPS, Heppenheimer was required to collect, account for, and pay to the IRS federal employment taxes withheld from the wages of PTP and PPS employees, but from 2013 through 2017, failed to report more than $270,000 in employment taxes to the IRS.  If convicted, Heppenheimer faces a statutory maximum sentence of five years imprisonment for each count charged, plus substantial monetary penalties, supervised release, and restitution.  Owner of New York City Temporary Staffing Firms Indicted for Employment Tax Fraud

Mere days later, the Justice Department also announced that a North Carolina federal grand jury had indicted Rebecca Adams and her daughter Elizabeth Wood with conspiring to defraud the United States government by withholding taxes from employees’ paychecks and failing to pay those taxes over to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).  See e.g., Owners of Greensboro Temporary Staffing Firms Indicted for Employment Tax Fraud.  The indictment alleges Adams and Wood created Forms W-2 for the staffing business employees but failed to file these forms with the government as required. Instead of paying the taxes withheld from employees, the indictment alleges that Adams and Wood used the funds to pay for personal expenses, such as a personal maid, personal landscaping services, and pet spa services. The staffing business allegedly changed names twice, even though it did not otherwise change its actual business operations. Adams was also charged with tax evasion based on her allegedly evading payment of more than $400,000 in previously assessed employment taxes and penalties to the IRS. If convicted, both defendants face significant punishment.  If convicted on these charges both Adam and Woods can expect their punishment will include prison time.  Adams and Wood each face a statutory maximum sentence of five years in prison for each charge of conspiracy, employment tax fraud, and tax evasion, plus probation and monetary penalties.

October Employment Tax Convictions Of Business Owner/Operators

Along with securing these new criminal tax indictments, the Justice Department also was successful in obtaining new criminal tax convictions against business owners in West Virginia and Florida for employment tax violations.

On October 21, two West Virginian business owners plead guilty today to conspiring to defraud the United States regarding their employment taxes and individual income taxes in a Federal District Court in West Virginia.   According to court documents, Russell and Karen Rucker, a married couple, operated Rucker, Billups and Fowler Inc. (RBF), an insurance agency located in Huntington, West Virginia. Russell Rucker was the president of RBF and since approximately late 2013, Karen Rucker served as a financial officer. Between September 2015 and September 2018, the Ruckers withheld approximately $143,226 in payroll taxes from the wages of RBF’s employees, which they did not pay over to the IRS. Instead, the Justice Department charged the Ruckers diverted portions of the withheld funds for their own personal benefit. For instance, from 2014 through 2016 the Ruckers continued to pay themselves over $500,000 in salary.  The Justice Department also charges that in response to IRS collection efforts in an attempt to conceal funds from the IRS, the Ruckers deposited money into the bank account of another individual, attempted to evade IRS levies by using a series of bank accounts that they did not disclose to the IRS, and by paying their mortgage and many other bills in cash.  The Justice Department also claims the Ruckers also attempted to evade payment of $114,911 of Russell Rucker’s 2001, 2002, and 2005 individual income taxes by disguising paychecks issued to Russell Rucker as non-taxable “note proceeds and failed to file their individual income tax returns and RBF’s corporate returns for 2014 through 2017. The Justice Department valued the intended tax loss caused to the IRS by their conduct is more than $250,000.  Currently awaiting sentencing scheduled on January 27, 2020, the Ruckers each face a statutory maximum sentence of five years in prison as well as monetary penalties, a period of supervised release, and restitution.  See West Virginian Business Owners Plead Guilty to Failing to Pay Employment Taxes and Individual Income Taxes.

Less than a week later, the Justice Department achieved another prosecutorial success when Miami, Florida business owner Ricardo Betancourt plead guilty on October 29 to causing the multiple parcel delivery businesses he owned and operated in South Florida to fail to pay over employment taxes.  According to the Justice Department, Betancourt’s multiple South Florida parcel delivery businesses earned gross revenues of more than $100 million and employed hundreds of employees.  Betancourt as the owner and operator of these businesses was responsible for ensuring the businesses collected and paid over to the IRS the employment taxes withheld from employees’ paychecks.  The Justice Department charged that Betancourt withheld payroll taxes from his employees, but deliberately failed to pay over those withholdings and other associated taxes to the IRS.  The Justice Department claimed that in 2013 and 2014, Betancourt did not pay over approximately 97 percent of the federal employment taxes he withheld from his employees. In 2015 and 2016, Betancourt did not pay over any of the federal employment taxes he withheld from his employees. For the quarter ending December 2016, Betancourt admitted that he failed to truthfully account for and pay over payroll taxes of approximately $727,478.  In his sentencing currently scheduled for February 12, 2020, Betancourt faces a statutory maximum sentence of five years in prison as well as a period of supervised release, restitution, and monetary penalties.  See Miami Business Owner Pleads Guilty to Employment Tax Fraud.

October Criminal Sentencing Of Business Owners For Employment Tax Violations

The prison sentences imposed in October also show business owners criminally convicted on employment tax related tax evasion and tax fraud charges should expect to serve time in prison.  Take the sentencing of Gail Cooper, who was sentenced for the employment tax crimes she committed as owner of a commercial and residential glass installation company, Greenville Architectural Glass (GAG). According to the Justice Department, as the owner of GAG responsible for GAG’s finances, Cooper was legally responsible for ensuring that GAG properly withheld and paid over to the IRS federal income, Social Security and Medicare taxes on the wages GAG paid to its employees during the years 2013 through 2015. Cooper was also required to file quarterly employment tax returns with the IRS. Although Cooper caused GAG to withhold taxes from employees’ wages, the Justice Department shared she neither filed the required quarterly returns for the first quarter of 2013 through the second quarter of 2015, nor paid the withheld amounts over to the IRS. Cooper also failed to pay over to the IRS unemployment taxes. In all, Cooper caused more than $280,000 in payroll taxes not to be paid.  Furthermore, the Justice Department also charged Cooper filed false individual income tax returns for 2008, 2009, and 2010, on which she understated GAG’s gross receipts and overstated its expenses. Cooper caused GAG’s bookkeeper to manipulate and delete entries in the company’s accounting records. Specifically, she directed the bookkeeper to delete invoices from the software after GAG received payment from a client to make it appear as if GAG had not received the payment. Cooper also paid personal expenses with business funds, including utility bills for her residence and rental properties, and caused these to be classified as business expenses. After filing fraudulent returns for 2008-2010, Cooper did not file any individual income tax returns for the next several years. In total, the Justice Department charged Cooper’s conduct caused a tax loss of $587,516 to the United States.  As punishment for these criminal convictions, U.S. District Judge Thomas M. Rose on October 29th ordered Cooper to serve 14  months in prison, two years of supervised release and pay restitution to the IRS in the amount of $659,262.39. Ohio Glass Company Owner Sentenced to Prison For Not Paying Employment Taxes.

That same day, Justice Department Tax Division prosecutors also obtained a 24 month prison sentence against a Tulsa, Oklahoma computer software development company owner for his criminal conviction on failing to account for and pay over employment taxes withheld from his employees’ wages.  According to documents and information provided to the Court, as the owner and operator of Tulsa-based Zealcon Corporation, Earnest J. Grayson Jr. was responsible for withholding, and paying over to the IRS payroll taxes on the wages paid to Zealcon employees. For the period January 2014 through June of 2016, Justice Department prosecutors showed  Grayson caused a tax loss of approximately $1 million by intentionally not paying to the IRS income and social security taxes withheld from Zealcon employees’ wages and the employer portion of social security taxes due from Zealcon on those wages.  As punishment for these crimes, Grayson was sentenced to serve a 24 month prison sentence, ordered to pay restitution to the IRS in the amount of $904,091, and to serve three years of supervised release.  Owner of Tulsa Software Company Sentenced to Prison for Employment Tax Fraud.

Successful Criminal Prosecutions Show Success of  Justice Department  & IRS Prioritization of Employment Tax Enforcement

These October criminal prosecutions are not aberrations, but instead are the result of the successes the Justice Department Tax Division is experiencing from the high prioritization it has given civil and criminal employment tax enforcement since 2018.  Beginning in May, 2018, the Justice Department Tax Division made civil and criminal employment tax enforcement a top priority.  The Justice Department views employer violations of these requirements as a widespread and substantial problem.  Employment taxes on employee wages represent nearly 70% of all revenue collected by the IRS and, as of June 30, 2016, more than $59.4 billion of tax reported on Employer’s Quarterly Federal Tax Returns (Forms 941) remained unpaid. When last measured prior to the Justice Department’s kickoff of its current enforcement initiative in 2018, the Justice Department said, employment tax violations represented more than $91 billion of the gross Tax Gap and, after collection efforts, $79 billion of the net Tax Gap in the U.S. See Employment Tax Enforcement.  The Justice Department also considers the nonpayment of employment taxes serious misconduct by employers. Its Employment Tax Enforcement page states, “When employers willfully fail to collect, account for and deposit with the IRS employment tax due, they are stealing from their employees and ultimately, the United States Treasury. In addition, employers who willfully fail to comply with their obligations and unlawfully line their own pockets with amounts withheld are gaining an unfair advantage over their honest competitors.”  Of course, in addition to these criminal prosecutions, the IRS and Justice Department also are pursuing civil tax enforcement.

Under this enforcement initiative, the Justice Department partners with the IRS in targeting for criminal and civil enforcement employers that violate their legal responsibility to collect and pay over to the IRS federal income tax, as well as the employees’ share of social security and Medicare taxes (collectively known as FICA taxes) withheld from employee’s wages as well as to pay the employer’s share of FICA taxes using a combination of civil and criminal tools.  It pursues money judgments, permanent injunctions, and criminal convictions that often carry substantial prison sentences, restitution and financial penalties against businesses and their owners and operators who fail to comply with their employment tax obligations and to collect outstanding amounts assessed against entities and responsible persons. It also pursues criminal investigations and prosecutions against those individuals and entities who willfully fail to comply with their employment tax responsibilities, as well as those who aid and assist them in failing to meet those responsibilities.

In the face of this ongoing enforcement effort, businesses and those with ownership or management authority over the collection and payment of employment taxes should use care to ensure the business properly classifies workers as employees versus contractors or in some other status, that wages are properly tracked and income tax and employment taxes properly are calculated, withheld and paid over to the IRS.  Proper worker classification is a critical starting point of these compliance efforts. When another person performs work for a business, the business first must classify correct whether that person is its employee versus an independent contractor or the employee or contractor of another business. Businesses and business leaders responsible for income and employment tax withholding, reporting and payment should be particularly careful when participating in arrangements that the IRS might consider employment tax fraud schemes such as:

  • “Pyramiding” of employment taxes, which the IRS views as a fraudulent practice where a business withholds taxes from its employees but intentionally fails to remit them to the IRS. Businesses involved in pyramiding frequently file for bankruptcy to discharge the liabilities accrued and then start a new business under a different name and begin a new scheme.
  • Abusive employee leasing arrangements where the business contracts with outside businesses to handle all administrative, personnel, and payroll concerns for employees where the leasing entity fails to properly report wages and withhold and payover income or employment taxes to the IRS.  The IRS and other agencies often pursue tax collection and other enforcement actions against businesses that have used leasing or other staffing businesses when the leasing or staffing company fails to properly report, withhold or pay over income and employment taxes to the IRS.
  • Paying workers in whole or partially, in cash without properly accounting for, withholding and paying income or employment taxes due on a worker’s wages where the facts and circumstances indicated the worker qualified as a common law employee of the business; or
  • Filing false payroll tax returns understating the amount of wages on which taxes are owed, or failing to file employment tax returns to evade employment or other taxes.

 

When evaluating the adequacy of employment tax compliance, business owners and operators are encouraged to resist the urge to assume that they can rely upon the contractual or labels of workers as contractors or employed by a staffing, leasing or other service provider to avoid characterization and resulting liability for employment and income tax obligations as the employer of workers. Under the Code the defensibility of these characterizations of workers generally is determined based on whether the facts and circumstances reflect that the business in operation possessed the requisite control to qualify as a common law employer with little or no deference to how the parties have labeled the arrangement. Leaders must critically evaluate these and other potentially suspect arrangements to realistically assess the likelihood that the IRS and Justice Department will agree with the company’s treatment; seek contractual, audit and other operational safeguards to require compliance and to capture and retain records and other evidence that the business might need to defend itself against a future audit or enforcement action associated with these suspect arrangements.

For More Information

We hope this update is helpful. For more information about worker classification and employment tax compliance and enforcement or other labor and employment developments, please contact the author Cynthia Marcotte Stamer via e-mail or via telephone at (214) 452 -8297.

Solutions Law Press, Inc. invites you receive future updates and join discussions about these and other human resources, health and other employee benefit and patient empowerment concerns by participating and contributing to the discussions in our Solutions Law Press HR & Benefits Update Compliance Update Group and registering for updates on our Solutions Law Press Website.

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About the Author

For more information about the IRS and Justice Department employment tax enforcement activities, contact the author of this article. Recognized by her peers as a Martindale-Hubble “AV-Preeminent” (Top 1%) and “Top Rated Lawyer” with special recognition LexisNexis® Martindale-Hubbell® as “LEGAL LEADER™ Texas Top Rated Lawyer” in Health Care Law and Labor and Employment Law; as among the “Best Lawyers In Dallas” for her work in the fields of “Labor & Employment,” “Tax: ERISA & Employee Benefits,” “Health Care” and “Business and Commercial Law” by D Magazine, Cynthia Marcotte Stamer is a practicing attorney board certified in labor and employment law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization and management consultant, author, public policy advocate and lecturer widely known for 30+ years of management focused employment, employee benefit and insurance, workforce and other management work, public policy leadership and advocacy, coaching, teachings, and publications including extensive work with businesses on tax and other worker classification compliance, risk anagement and defense.

Businesses involved in these arrangements generally should use care to critically evaluate these and other potentially suspect arrangements to verify their likely defensibility in the event of a challenge based on a realistic assessment of the actual facts and circumstances; seek contractual, audit and other operational safeguards to require compliance and to capture and retain records and other evidence that the business might need to defend itself against a future audit or enforcement action associated with these suspect arrangements.

For More Information

We hope this update is helpful. For more information about worker classification and employment tax compliance and enforcement or other labor and employment developments, please contact the author Cynthia Marcotte Stamer via e-mail or via telephone at (214) 452 -8297.

Solutions Law Press, Inc. invites you receive future updates and join discussions about these and other human resources, health and other employee benefit and patient empowerment concerns by participating and contributing to the discussions in our Solutions Law Press HR & Benefits Update Compliance Update Group and registering for updates on our Solutions Law Press Website.

.

About the Author

For more information about the IRS and Justice Department employment tax enforcement activities, contact the author of this article. Recognized by her peers as a Martindale-Hubble “AV-Preeminent” (Top 1%) and “Top Rated Lawyer” with special recognition LexisNexis® Martindale-Hubbell® as “LEGAL LEADER™ Texas Top Rated Lawyer” in Health Care Law and Labor and Employment Law; as among the “Best Lawyers In Dallas” for her work in the fields of “Labor & Employment,” “Tax: ERISA & Employee Benefits,” “Health Care” and “Business and Commercial Law” by D Magazine, Cynthia Marcotte Stamer is a practicing attorney board certified in labor and employment law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization and management consultant, author, public policy advocate and lecturer widely known for 30+ years of management focused employment, employee benefit and insurance, workforce and other management work, public policy leadership and advocacy, coaching, teachings, and publications including extensive work with businesses on tax and other worker classification compliance, risk anagement and defense.

Author of numerous highly regarding publications on worker classification and other employment, payroll, and employee benefit tax compliance publications, Ms. Stamer’s clients include employers and other workforce management organizations; employer, union, association, government and other insured and self-insured health and other employee benefit plan sponsors, benefit plans, fiduciaries, administrators, and other plan vendors;   domestic and international public and private health care, education and other community service and care organizations; managed care organizations; insurers, third-party administrative services organizations and other payer organizations;  and other private and government organizations and their management leaders.  As part of this work, she has worked extensively on employee benefit communication and other employee benefit plan legislative and regulatory policy, design, compliance and enforcement including testifying to the EBSA Advisory Council on Employee Welfare and Pension Benefit Plans in  on the effectiveness of employee benefit plan disclosures during 2017 hearings on on reducing the burdens and increasing the effectiveness of ERISA mandated disclosures.

Throughout her 30 plus year career, Ms. Stamer has continuously worked with these and other management clients to design, implement, document, administer and defend hiring, performance management, compensation, promotion, demotion, discipline, reduction in force and other workforce, employee benefit, insurance and risk management, health and safety, and other programs, products and solutions, and practices; establish and administer compliance and risk management policies; manage labor-management relations, comply with requirements, investigate and respond to government, accreditation and quality organizations, regulatory and contractual audits, private litigation and other federal and state reviews, investigations and enforcement actions; evaluate and influence legislative and regulatory reforms and other regulatory and public policy advocacy; prepare and present training and discipline;  handle workforce and related change management associated with mergers, acquisitions, reductions in force, re-engineering, and other change management; and a host of other workforce related concerns. Ms. Stamer’s experience in these matters includes supporting these organizations and their leaders on both a real-time, “on demand” basis with crisis preparedness, intervention and response as well as consulting and representing clients on ongoing compliance and risk management; plan and program design; vendor and employee credentialing, selection, contracting, performance management and other dealings; strategic planning; policy, program, product and services development and innovation; mergers, acquisitions, bankruptcy and other crisis and change management; management, and other opportunities and challenges arising in the course of workforce and other operations management to improve performance while managing workforce, compensation and benefits and other legal and operational liability and performance.

A Fellow in the American College of Employee Benefit Counsel and Past Chair of both the ABA Managed Care & Insurance Interest Group and it’s RPTE Employee Benefits and Other  Compensation Group, Ms. Stamer also has leading edge experience in health benefit, health care, health, financial and other plan, program and process design, administration, documentation, contracting, risk management, compliance and related process and systems development, policy and operations; training; legislative and regulatory affairs, and other legal and operational concerns.

A former lead consultant to the Government of Bolivia on its Pension Privatization Project with extensive domestic and international public policy concerns in pensions, healthcare, workforce, immigration, tax, education and other areas, Ms. Stamer has been extensively involved in U.S. federal, state and local health care and other legislative and regulatory reform impacting these concerns throughout her career. Her public policy and regulatory affairs experience encompasses advising and representing domestic and multinational private sector health, insurance, employee benefit, employer, staffing and other outsourced service providers, and other clients in dealings with Congress, state legislatures, and federal, state and local regulators and government entities, as well as providing advice and input to U.S. and foreign government leaders on these and other policy concerns.

Author of leading works on a multitude of labor and employment, compensation and benefits, internal controls and compliance, and risk management matters and a Fellow in the American College of Employee Benefit Counsel, the American Bar Foundation and the Texas Bar Foundation, Ms. Stamer also shares her thought leadership, experience and advocacy on these and other related concerns by her service in the leadership of the Solutions Law Press, Inc. Coalition for Responsible Health Policy, its PROJECT COPE: Coalition on Patient Empowerment, and a broad range of other professional and civic organizations including North Texas Healthcare Compliance Association, a founding Board Member and past President of the Alliance for Healthcare Excellence, past Board Member and Board Compliance Committee Chair for the National Kidney Foundation of North Texas; former Board President of the early childhood development intervention agency, The Richardson Development Center for Children (now Warren Center For Children); current Vice Chair of the ABA Tort & Insurance Practice Section Employee Benefits Committee, current Vice Chair of Policy for the Life Sciences Committee of the ABA International Section, Past Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Section, a current Defined Contribution Plan Committee Co-Chair, former Group Chair and Co-Chair of the ABA RPTE Section Employee Benefits Group, past Representative and chair of various committees of ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits; an ABA Health Law Coordinating Council representative, former Coordinator and a Vice-Chair of the Gulf Coast TEGE Council TE Division, past Chair of the Dallas Bar Association Employee Benefits & Executive Compensation Committee, a former member of the Board of Directors of the Southwest Benefits Association and others.

For more information about Ms. Stamer or herexperience and involvements, see here or contact Ms. Stamer via telephone at (214) 452-8297 or via e-mail here.

About Solutions Law Press, Inc.™

Solutions Law Press, Inc.™ provides human resources and employee benefit and other business risk management, legal compliance, management effectiveness and other coaching, tools and other resources, training and education on leadership, governance, human resources, employee benefits, data security and privacy, insurance, health care and other key compliance, risk management, internal controls and operational concerns. If you find this of interest, you also be interested reviewing some of our other Solutions Law Press, Inc.™ resources here.

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NOTICE: These statements and materials are for general informational and purposes only. They do not establish an attorney-client relationship, are not legal advice or an offer or commitment to provide legal advice, and do not serve as a substitute for legal advice. Readers are urged to engage competent legal counsel for consultation and representation in light of the specific facts and circumstances presented in their unique circumstance at any particular time. No comment or statement in this publication is to be construed as legal advice or an admission and its content is not tailored to any particular situation and does not necessarily address all relevant issues. Because the law is rapidly evolving and rapidly evolving rules makes it highly likely that subsequent developments could impact the currency and completeness of this discussion.otherwise notify any participant of any such change, limitation, or other condition that might affect the suitability of reliance upon these materials or information otherwise conveyed in connection with this program. Readers may not rely upon, are solely responsible for, and assume the risk and all liabilities resulting from their use of this publication.

Circular 230 Compliance. The following disclaimer is included to ensure that we comply with U.S. Treasury Department Regulations. Any statements contained herein are not intended or written by the writer to be used, and nothing contained herein can be used by you or any other person, for the purpose of (1) avoiding penalties that may be imposed under federal tax law, or (2) promoting, marketing or recommending to another party any tax-related transaction or matter addressed herein.

©2019 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer. Non-exclusive right to republish granted to Solutions Law Press, Inc.™ For information about republication or the topic of this article, please contact the author directly. All other rights reserved.

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