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interview: carl levin

Senator, looking back to the hearings you held last fall on tax shelters, why did you launch that investigation? What was that investigation about? What was it prompted by?

It was actually prompted by Enron, that had used tax shelters to carry out some of their shenanigans. We decided to dig into the whole tax shelter business a lot more deeply to see what the role was of accounting firms and law firms and tax advisors into the concoction of these shelters.

And what's the problem?

Loss of money to the Treasury. When you have this kind of tax avoidance, and when you've got people who are supposed to be paying taxes that don't pay taxes, it just increases the burden on the rest of us.

So the ordinary taxpayer is paying for this?

Yes, sure, because we have to keep our services going. If the people who are supposed to pay taxes do not, it puts a greater burden either on us or on our children and grandchildren, who are going to pay for the money that we borrowed to provide these services. This is money [owed to] the government.

The IRS is always way behind some of these people who cook up these deceptive practices. It takes sometimes years to even figure out these schemes.

We talk about tax money here that is being sheltered that is not intended to be sheltered. There are some shelters that are obviously intended by the tax code -- low-income housing. We gave people an incentive if you invest in low-income housing. It's a way of, quote, "sheltering" some of the income that you otherwise have. That's intended by the code in order to produce something for society.

The abuse of tax shelters that we went into last fall are the tax avoidance schemes and deceptions, which were never intended by the code, which have no economic purpose -- no business purpose -- except to try to avoid paying one's taxes.

photo of levin

Spurred by the Enron investigation, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich), the ranking Democrat of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, led an investigation into the development and marketing of abusive tax shelters, with particular focus on the activities of KPMG. In this interview, he recounts the investigation and discusses the need for legislation to increase penalty fees for shelter promoters "to make sure that the penalties are just the same on the guys who cooked up the scheme as for the people who try to benefit from it -- the taxpayers themselves." Levin is hopeful about achieving tax shelter reform: "Enron has unleashed a real movement here to do some proper regulation," he says.

So how big is the problem of abuse of tax shelters?

Maybe $15 billion a year. In that area.

So that runs year after year?

Oh, yes. This builds up. We saw perhaps more of it in the 1990s, when there were huge profits that were being made. But nonetheless, without any doubt, it continues, and it's got to be stopped or else there's going to be a much bigger burden on average taxpayers.

It also kind of undermines the whole purpose of the tax code, which is to have confidence and produce confidence in the American people that people who are supposed to pay taxes are paying taxes, and are not avoiding taxes or evading taxes through these kinds of gimmicks and schemes.

… What's the big difference of the tax shelters in the 1990s? What are their hallmarks?

These tax shelters were unusual in a lot of ways. First of all, they were heavily promoted by accounting firms, by lawyers, by investment advisors. These were not cases where you had taxpayers coming in and asking the accountant, "How can you help me reduce my tax bill?" These are cases where the accountants are cooking up these deceptive schemes, and which are then going out and mass marketing these schemes to people who had made [a] major amount of money or had big profits in the last year. These are frequently done just through telemarketing.

We know KPMG did telemarketing, where they would have lists of people who made a lot of money the previous year, and they're getting cold calls from telemarketing people saying, "We know you made a lot of income. Do you want to pay less taxes on that income?" And the people who are supposed to pay taxes will say, "Well, is it legal? Is it proper?" They say, "Yes, we got a legal opinion saying it's proper."

Then the taxpayer might say, "Send me a copy of the opinion. What does it cost me?" Then they'd be told what the cost would be and what the benefit would be in reduced taxes. It was pretty tempting to a whole lot of taxpayers, and very, very lucrative to accounting firms and lawyers and investment advisors. …

You investigated this for a long time. What was your most surprising or worrisome finding?

That so-called "legitimate" firms -- accounting firms, law firms, tax investment firms -- were the engine of these deceptions. They were the promoters, the designers [of] the marketing that went into them.

So these are firms that we look to kind of help referee and keep the system sound. You're saying they're the ones who are actually turning it into a rotten system?

Exactly. In Enron, it was the opposite. You had Enron that was rotten, that went to significant firms -- banks, stockbroker houses, brokerage houses -- and got them involved in helping Enron cook the books. There was a lot of aiding and abetting going on by some major banks with Enron, and by major stock brokerage houses with Enron. But Enron was the engine. They were the driver. …

Here, with these kind of tax shelters, we've got the accounting firms and the lawyers working with them who are the designers. They're the cooks. They're the ones who are initiating these schemes, and then going out looking for people who had a profitable year and urging them to buy their tax product to reduce the taxes.

Why did you launch this investigation of tax shelters?

I was disgusted with the use of these shelters by Enron, and we wanted to see just how pervasive the use of these shelters were by other companies.

What'd you find?

We found a very pervasive use of tax avoidance schemes that were designed and cooked up and concocted by otherwise supposedly legitimate accounting firms and investing firms.

You focused in your investigation heavily on KPMG. Why KPMG?

We had subpoenaed a lot of materials from a lot of firms, and we decided that this was one of the worst perpetrators. We had to focus on one firm, and it looked to us as though they were involved more heavily than any other firm that we could find.

A number of these firms have reached agreements with the IRS -- PriceWaterhouseCoopers, Ernst & Young, Merrill Lynch. But KPMG has been fighting the government tooth and nail about not revealing all its lists of clients and all this information. What do you make of the stance that KPMG is taking?

… They've made a calculation that they'd get away with it. The fines that are involved are so low for participating in these tax shelters, that you can, if you're a KPMG -- as their own memos show -- think that you can actually come out ahead even, if you end up being fined.

I mean, you got a $1,000 fine, $5,000 fine for shelters, which are producing fees to KPMG of half a million or $1 million, $2 million. Their own memos say, "We'll take these risks. We'll take the risk of the IRS catching up to us, because even if they catch us, even if they decide that these tax shelters are illegal, the fines we pay are a small cost of doing business, just like a parking ticket."

Top executives from KPMG, came in [to your hearings] and said, "We've mended our ways. We don't do that anymore. Those were shelters we sold five, six years ago." Do you buy that?

No, those tax shelters were being sold last year.

So you don't buy that they've changed their ways?

I don't see any evidence that they've changed their ways. You always can hope. But given the evidence, given the evasive nature of the testimony, I don't have any hope until I see proof with them. I'd have to see significant proof and I'd have to see it over a long period of time before I would buy that. …

What about the fees? You were very interested in how KPMG calculated their fees. Why is that important?

This, to me, was the nail in their coffin -- the artifice that the phony, deceptive device that they created was profitable to them to the extent to which there was a loss. The greater the loss, the greater the money that KPMG made.

The greater the tax loss?

Yes, the tax loss. So if there was a bigger tax loss, KPMG made more as well, of course, as their client.

So they're sheltering the gains by creating an artificial loss? Is that what you're saying?

Yes, they're sheltering their client's gains, and the client is paying a fee to KPMG. The greater the tax loss to the client, the greater the fee for KPMG.

But it's not a real loss, it's just a paper loss. Is that right?

This is pure tax loss. Now this is not a real loss in a business; this is just something which can be deducted from a gain or a profit.

That's the point -- because nobody goes into business to make a loss, not normally.

Not that I ever heard of. None of these clients went into business to make a loss. These clients of theirs went into business to make a profit, and they did. Then they'd get the call from KPMG saying, "How would you like to reduce your taxes on all that?" Now the client is saying to themselves, "Well, why not? I mean, if it's legal, show me how to do it."

Then KPMG shows them how KPMG and their lawyers devised a scheme to reduce tax burden on their clients. These schemes are hollow; they're phony, they're artificial. The IRS is gradually catching up to some of them, and I hope they catch up to KPMG. …

In the documents and the testimony you gathered, what kind of fees was KPMG charging a wealthy taxpayer or a corporation?

It would be millions of dollars for a tax shelter. Again, it depends on the loss. If there was a capital gain, let's say, of $50 million by a taxpayer, then the taxpayer would pay a maximum fee of 7 percent of that, which would be perhaps $3.5 million. But the taxpayer would make a huge gain, because he would turn a $50 million capital gain or income into something which would either be taxed at a much lower rate or tax-free, this huge benefit. …

You called in a guy named R. J. Ruble from the law firm of Brown & Wood. What were you trying to find out from him?

That he, in fact, was paid huge sums of money to write cookie-cutter opinions. If he's given say 600 opinions to write -- many of which are identical -- and being paid $50,000 for each, he's making a huge, huge amount of money for work which he didn't perform. You may perform some work to come up with the legal opinion the first time around on a shelter. But when you reissue and re-reissue and just keep issuing the same opinion -- each to a different client using that same shelter which had been sold by your company -- and you're paid the same $50,000 for each opinion, you are raking in a fortune for work that you have not done, except the first time perhaps you did it.

Now the first time was deceptive, and I hope they go after these law firms for participating in these deceptive transactions. I hope we increase the fines that we impose above the completely nominal fine that we do now, so that we can stop law firms from writing these kind of opinions. …

You wouldn't imagine that somebody would take the Fifth Amendment if all they were trying to do was to protect themselves from the charge that they charged multiple clients for the same work. I mean, is there something more wrong with these legal opinions? The legal opinions are clearly important for the clients. What's their role, and what's wrong with them?

… They're supposed to be based on representations [from the client]. In this case, the same firms that gave the legal opinions and cooked up the advice that was given, or the so-called tax product that was sold, also designed the representations that was given to them. They handed the clients' representations to the client.

Then the client's supposed to be telling them, [but] they're writing for the client.

Exactly. They're saying, "If you sign this, saying that you have formed this corporation, you have done this, you have done that -- which we will do for you if you sign that very complex document -- we can save you a huge percentage of your tax burden." That's what they did.

So it's not as though someone comes into an accounting firm or a law firm and says, "I've been in business a long time. If I do this and if I sell stock to this person, what's the effect of this, and if I trade stock with that person, what's the -- "

"What's the way you can help me out?"

Yes, if that's the best advice you have. That's not what happened here. The opposite is happening here. Now here's the accounting firm and the law firm going to people who made some money saying, "We can save a lot of your taxes if you will represent this to us that this is true, and we will make it true. We will create the phony corporation that you will transfer stock from to somebody else, and then these results will follow."

We've talked to people who've set up these fake corporations, these Cayman Island corporations which are used in these tax schemes, and they contend that what they're doing is legal.

It's not legal. The IRS is going to shut them down if they can get to them. The problem is the IRS is always way behind some of these people who cook up these deceptive practices. It takes sometimes years to even figure out these schemes. We spent a year looking through hundreds of thousands of pages of documents that we subpoenaed, just to try to figure out how these things work.

What these folks who concoct these schemes hope is that they are so complex that, number one, the IRS will not be able to even figure them out; that it'll take years for them to figure out, and by their own words, that, "Even if the IRS decides to come after us, the fines that are imposed upon us are so small that we still make out" -- they don't say in their own words "like bandits," those are my words -- "like bandits," because they do.

Because these are just slaps on the wrist. These are $1,000, $2,000, $5,000 maximum fines for aiding and abetting taxpayers to violate the tax laws. That has no effect whatsoever on people who are determined to abuse the tax code the way these accounting firms and law firms have.

We have someone from inside KPMG who says that, when they tried to figure out whether or not to register these tax shelters as required by the IRS, they simply made a business calculation. They didn't say, "What are we required to do by the law?" They said, "What's it going to cost us to register? What's this going to cost us if we don't register?" You've got some documents, didn't you? What's your reading on that? What is KPMG doing? What's their mindset as they look at, "Should we register these shelters as required by the IRS?"

Yes. They're making a cost-benefit analysis on violating the law, that, "Even if we don't get away with it, we get away with it. Even if they catch up to us and even if the IRS succeeds in piercing this veil that we have put around what we're doing, and can figure out all these various strands, and even if they come after us, the fines that we're going to pay are so minimal, we will still be very well off financially."

That is an explicit calculation that they're making. It's a cost-benefit analysis, and it's disgusting.

And you can see it in the documents?

You can see it right in the documents.

How important is secrecy and concealment to this whole tax shelter business?

I think it's very important, for two reasons. One, that makes it difficult for the IRS to figure out what's going on. But secondly, it seems to me when the public sees how complex or told how complex these are, it's very difficult for the public to figure out what's going on.

So if an accounting firm says, "No, no, what we're doing is perfectly legal," and then they hold up a chart which nobody can [understand], which took us month after month after month to try to figure out -- and very few of my constituents have the time to spend a half a year or a year trying to figure out a certain tax shelter that's being concocted by an accounting firm.

These folks that design these things are counting on both the IRS not having the time or the resources to cut through this stuff. They're also counting on the public losing interest, because they're so difficult for the public, [for] anyone to understand how they work.

But they also have instructions, as I saw in some of the documents you all came up with, and others. They have instructions to their staff people not to leave copies with their clients, not to let their clients have their normal accountant or their normal attorney review these things. Then we've even talked to somebody inside KPMG and they said, "Certain units in KPMG operated secretly from others in KPMG." They even restricted the information. It's like national security stuff, top secret, and you can't reveal it. What kind of culture is this?

It's a deceptive culture. It's a culture of greed. It's a culture that says, "Hey, we can get away with something. It'll never catch up to us and if they do, there's no jail involved here -- small fines involved."

That's why we've introduced a bill which is going to make it just as expensive for the accounting firm or the bank or the investment advisor as it is for the taxpayer. Not just a $1,000 or $5,000 or $10,000 fine, but all the taxes which were supposed to be owing -- plus a penalty.

It's pretty obscene to me that you got a firm like KPMG that goes through telemarketing to persuade taxpayers who've made a big capital gain or made some big income that they can reduce their tax bill if they'll follow a scheme which KPMG has devised -- frequently a very complicated scheme which average taxpayers aren't even going to be able to figure out, but they rely on what has been a good name or good reputation of a firm. Then the taxpayer, when they get caught by the IRS, very properly are hit for the back taxes and hit for a penalty. That's the way it should be.

But the guys who concocted this scheme, who sold the scheme, who promoted the scheme, who hawked the scheme, get off almost scot-free with a $1,000 or $5,000 or, maximum, $10,000 fine. That is absolutely wrong, and we're going to do some legislation which will end that -- to make sure that the penalties are just the same for the guys who cooked up the scheme as they are for the people who try to benefit from it, the taxpayers themselves.

We also have to end the situation where accounting firms are auditing their own tax products. If you have somebody who has been involved in giving tax advice to somebody, to a company, they should not be auditing their own product or their own promotion. That has got to be ended. We have a bill which has been introduced with Senator McCain and Senator Baucus to end that kind of conflict of interest. …

Now, inside KPMG, is this some wildcat operation? Or is this something that's being directed from the top of the firm?

No, this comes right from the top, because we have a lot of instances where people below the top are saying, "This is wrong. We shouldn't [do] this. Our firm shouldn't be involved in this," where they were vetoed by the top people. The top people said, "Go ahead with it." …

There's one transaction they have called FLIP. There's a guy named Jeff Stein, who is the number two or the number one guy in the whole tax division of KPMG. I think there's a quote in his [e-mail] saying, "This warrant, this deal that we've cooked up sticks out like a sore thumb. No one in his right mind would pay this kind of price for this transaction." This is one of the top guys saying this in an e-mail to all these other guys, and yet they're going on marketing the thing. Is the evidence that once they find something wrong, that they cut it off? Or they just keep marketing? What's going on here?

It's pretty shameless what's going on here. It's a determination to make money hand over fist for doing nothing.

Even if they find something internally that's wrong?

Even when that has happened. Jeff Stein talked to us, to my staff, who claims that he didn't understand what was in his own documents.

He didn't understand--

--what was in his own documents, right.

In other words, he sent this memo out to everybody else on his staff saying, "This is the problem with this shelter. We got to move to another shelter," and he says he didn't understand it?

That's what he told our staff.

Do you buy that?

No. I don't buy anything that most of these people told us, because it contradicts their own materials. We have people here who've said that they stopped peddling these shelters in 2001 or 2002, and we have evidence that they were still peddling them in 2003. Their own documents, their own organization charts show that this continued and they just say, "Oh, [the] charts are wrong."

When you put together all the contradictions in their own documents, as well as their own testimony, you leave with a very queasy feeling that these folks still don't get it; and the only way they're going to get it is if someone clamps down on them mighty hard. That's what we're going to try to do.

These organizational charts -- they refer to units called, like Stratecon, Personal Financial Planning, Tax Innovation Center, which I think your investigation identified as being the core units dealing with these tax shelters. Do you think they're out of business?

They claim they're out of business. They claim under oath that they're out of business. But they sure were not out of business in early 2003, according to their own organization charts. They said those particular units were out of business in 2002, and yet we have the 2003 organization charts still showing those units. Then they say their own charts are wrong. I mean, how incredible can you get? …

Who's looking out for the ordinary honest taxpayer in all this tax shelter business?

Should be the IRS, the SEC and the Treasury Department.

But the tax code has become so complicated that there're very few people that are still preparing their tax returns. Most people turn to, whether it's H&R Block, they turn to somebody. They turn to a CPA, they turn to an accountant and maybe they turn to a lawyer to say, "How should I properly file my taxes? I don't honestly understand. Help me reduce my taxes, but also help me prepare an honest return." Who's looking out for the honest taxpayer if you can't trust the accounting profession and the biggest names in the accounting profession?

That's why it's so important that you have the ability to have confidence in your accounting firms. Once that is jeopardized, once there's some shakiness as to whether you can rely upon some of these institutions whose reputation is such that you ought to be able to go there with confidence, it seems to me we are seriously undermining the whole fabric of the society, which is you've got to have confidence in the people who are either giving you accounting advice or legal advice that they will give you honest advice.

In this case, we have the opposite happening, where you got the accounting firm going out and peddling dishonest advice.

I asked you before what was at stake. I asked you before how much money we were losing and so forth. But I wonder whether or not there isn't a larger stake that you're suggesting? What are the real stakes here? …

It's just public confidence in our government -- that we are a government of laws, that everybody will play by the same rules, and that if I pay my taxes, you're going to pay your taxes. If there's people who are avoiding taxes by going through these tax shelter schemes which have been peddled by the accounting firms, or if they're putting money offshore into these tax havens or whatever else they're doing to avoid paying what they're supposed to pay under the tax code, what we're doing is undermining confidence in our government.

It seems to me, people are then going to say, "Hey, wait a minute, that guy's not paying his taxes. Why should I pay my taxes?" Once that sentiment starts spreading, if it ever did, then you've got even bigger trouble than we have now.

So we've got to promote public confidence by making sure that people who participate in these phony transactions are called to account for it.

So you're saying one of the real dangers is the sucker syndrome? If we figure we're suckers for paying our taxes because other people are getting away with murder, then the tax system's gone?

More and more people will then say, "Hey, the system's wrong. I'm not going to pay my fair share until the system's fixed." We got to fix this system before that happens. We cannot afford to have that happen in this country. This country has always been based upon the willingness of our people to do their fair share. But it's based on a mutuality; it's based on a deal. It's an unwritten deal, but it's a deal -- that everybody here in this country is either going to pay their fair share or be called to account.

One of the problems is that we have not had people called to account. That's why it's so important we call people to account. That's the purpose of these hearings -- put these guys under oath, make them raise their hand, make them subject to the law of perjury, which they are. Then call them to account, either by holding them accountable for prior actions -- which I hope they will be called for -- or if there are loopholes in the law, to close those loopholes, so that folks cannot creep through those the way these guys have tried to.

I don't think they're going to succeed, by the way. I think the law right now is clear enough so that at least we can say that these people acted illegally. The problem is that they'll still get away with it, because the penalties are so weak. …

Let me ask you about reform. You've said we need a series of significant reforms. You've alluded to them during the course of our conversation. What do you think is the most important thing that needs to be done to try to fix this tax shelter problem?

The most important thing is to have a system of fines which are meaningful. Right now, our system of fines are so weak, they're so minimal, for all intents and purposes they are not existent for the people who aid and abet the taxpayer who doesn't pay the taxes owing. The aiders and abettors, the collaborators here are given a slap on the wrist -- $1,000, $5,000.

What do we need in place? You've said that several times. Do you need jail terms? Do you need multi-million dollar fines? What kind of fines do you need? What kind of penalties?

At a minimum, you need to have a penalty equal to what the taxpayer is penalized who has been sold the scheme. When you've got an accounting firm and a law firm and an investment firm that is peddling a tax shelter, when that turns out to be phony and doesn't protect the taxpayer, doesn't shelter the taxpayer's income and the taxpayer then has to pay back taxes plus a penalty, plus interest, I think the people who promoted that shelter to begin with to that taxpayer ought to be subject to exactly the same fine. …

Your hearings showed another thing that's important. You get a sequence of these tax shelters. You get one called FLIP, and the IRS finally figures that one out. They move on to OPUS. The IRS figures that one out; they move on to BLIPS. What you got is a cat-and-mouse game going on here. So as soon as something gets figured out, they change it slightly. … What's the heart of the problem? Is the heart of the problem business purpose? Economic rationale? Is there a fix that can cut through a lot of the underbrush, a lot of the details of these tax shelters, that says, "This is the rule?"

… We need to clarify the definitions in some cases, so that the economic substance rule is defined in one way and not perhaps slightly differently depending on what District Court you go to or what Court of Appeals district you're in. There's a little ambiguity there, but that's not the problem. The problem is that this cat-and-mouse game will probably continue, because there's going to be people who will be motivated by greed.

So you need a couple things to happen. One, that when they're caught, they pay a price. Right now, they don't. You have to have a deterrent for the bad guys. Right now, you don't have a deterrent. It's part of the cost of doing business in this way that you're going to get a slap on the wrist, and you go on and do something else and create another one.

You also need to have the government agencies that are the cops on the beat here with the resources to go after the bad guys. We don't do that. We've had an anti-regulatory scheme. The IRS too often has been viewed as being the enemy instead of someone who can do some good for this society. There's times, by the way, where they've been abusive and that's a different issue, because we got to make sure the IRS behaves ... properly. But you got to give the IRS the resources to go after the bad guys, because they're essential in this process. You need a strong SEC, you need a strong Treasury Department.

You need motivation from the top also here. You need it also [in] the administration, whoever's in power, to go after these guys, to call in these guys, to call in the heads of the accounting firm, the heads of the accounting practice and the law practice. They ought to be called into the White House and say, "This is shameful stuff, folks. This has got to stop. You got a couple options. You're either going to clean up your own house and regulate yourselves, or we're going to have to come in very, very heavy with government regulations."

Are you saying the administration hasn't been tough enough on these guys?

I don't want to politicize it, because I think Congress has got a responsibility, too. When there's a failure on the part of leadership to do this, we must act with laws. So I'm not trying to point my finger at any particular administration. But it seems to me there's been much too much about climate of greed -- "What's in it for me?" It's been promoted too often by too many political leaders. "Taxes are bad." Well, taxes are the price of having a civilized civilization. You got to have taxes, and you got to have fairness in the tax system. The "taxes are bad" syndrome has got to end, because whether taxes are collected or not will determine whether or not we got schools that are going to function; whether we got roads that are not going to have potholes; whether we're going to have a military that is strong, and all the other things that we need. …

Let me just go back to this issue of economic substance. Some people think that the central flaw, the common flaw in these tax shelter schemes is that they lack economic substance. If you look at all these tax shelters, you put them together, what is the central flaw? What's the thing that they have in common with each other that isn't right?

That is the common flaw -- that they have no business purpose or economic purpose to them. Their only purpose is to help taxpayers avoid paying the tax that is intended by the tax code.

Do we have, or do we need a law that says clearly, "You can't do a transaction without business purpose and economic substance?"

We have a number of legal opinions by judges, courts, that say that. There is some need to harmonize those opinions and to make it one clear definition in the law. That's what the Grassley bill does, and that's an important step.

Larry Summers, when he was Treasury secretary back in the year 2000, made a number of speeches about this. [He] testified about this, and sent a bunch of proposals to Congress calling for codification of economic substance, calling for increasing the penalties on promoters, calling for requirement to register and disclose. None of that was passed; none of that went anywhere. That's four years ago, Senator. What's the problem on Capitol Hill?

The status quo is supported by a lot of powerful interests, and they lobby against this. The accounting profession [is] lobbying against these kind of changes. But now we got something that's changed, and it's called Enron. Enron has unleashed a real movement here to do some proper regulation. So that already has created some reforms; the Enron reforms in the accounting area. I think we will hope now to see some reforms in the area that we've been talking about, as well. …

You've said that there have been some reforms passed in the wake of the Enron scandal. What we see is that the Senate has, more than once, passed legislation. Then it calls for codification of economic substance, increased penalties, disclosure and so forth, every time it gets to conference. It happened more than once in 2003, happened more than once last year. Every time it gets to conference, it dies. What's the problem? Who is holding things up?

Well, the Republicans in the House of Representatives are who's holding it up.

Is it specifically Bill Thomas?

Just specifically the Republican leadership in the House is apparently the problem in the House. Now, not being in the House, I don't know more than that it's the Republican leadership that's not allowed these changes to be made. …

We got to end this kind of stuff. I hope that the people who have defended the status quo here will be held to account politically during the next campaign, that this will be an issue in a number of races around the country in those districts who have members of Congress who have opposed these kind of changes. That's always fair game in a political campaign. I hope it becomes involved in the presidential race as well, whoever the candidates are for the Democrats this year, and the president himself will engage on this issue, will talk about the abuse of tax shelters and the tax code, and will then lay out a program for correcting it -- not just rhetoric, but very specific detailed programs.

I'd like to hear the president support very tough penalties for violating the tax laws. These are what people have found to be acting illegally who are now given a $1,000 or a $5,000 or a $10,000 fine, when they have made millions of dollars by doing so. I'd like to hear the administration, the secretary of the Treasury come out in support of the kind of tough penalties which are in our legislation. …

The administration tells us that they think they're making good headway, that the problem's largely behind us, that they're going after the promoters, that they've got new regulations on disclosure. Yes, they'd like to see some increased penalties, but they don't want to see any major change. You buy that?

No. That's obviously an opinion which anyone who defends the status quo is going to give -- that things have changed. I don't buy it at all. And, by the way, if they really have changed, the fact that we put in some really tough penalties will not have anything other than a deterrent effect. They should support the penalties, it seems to me, [rather than] saying, "No one's violating the law anymore, so there's no reason not to have much larger penalties."

Do you think the problem's licked?

No, not at all. This problem has been going on as long as taxes have been paid, and it's going to continue to go on, by the way. This requires endless oversight. There's always going to be people out there that are going to try to avoid paying their fair share of taxes, that'll look for schemes, that'll concoct schemes, that'll peddle schemes. …

That's why you got to have laws that are really tough -- to deter it in the first instance, to punish it in the second instance. Will we always have it? I'm an optimistic person, so I don't want to say we're always going to have it. But I wouldn't assume that we're not going to have it. We've got to act with these much stronger laws, much stronger penalties in order to have less of it, and when it happens to really punish the people who do it.

The American people are really disgusted by what has not happened following Enron. …


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posted february 19, 2004

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