Trump IRS Nominee Built Career Helping the Rich Avoid Taxes

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Photo of Charles Rettig via

By Michael Tracey

President Trump’s reported nominee for commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service is a longtime tax lawyer who has helped a range of affluent individuals shield their wealth from the prying hands of government, according to court documents and press accounts.

Based in Beverly Hills, Charles “Chuck” Rettig has represented a bevy of rich clients in disputes with tax collectors, with a special emphasis on offshore account holders who may run afoul of U.S. law.

Conservative consternation about the IRS reached a fever pitch during the Obama administration, with House Republicans initiating impeachment proceedings against then-commissioner John Koskinen over allegations that conservative advocacy groups were improperly targeted for tax audits. President Obama declared that he would view any such targeting as “outrageous,” and the Treasury Department’s inspector general later found that progressive-leaning groups were also subject to intensive scrutiny.

Praised by colleagues as a pioneer of the Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Program, which the IRS offers to tax evaders who wish to preemptively apprise authorities of their noncompliance and receive reduced penalties as a result, Rettig has hailed the program as a sound economic decision even for the most egregiously delinquent clients. “Participating taxpayers receive the ability to use the previously undisclosed funds in any manner they desire,” he wrote in 2012. “Many have benefitted by repatriating foreign funds with limited earning potential into a depressed U.S. economy with a suffering real estate market and numerous business opportunities.” Rettig is also known for writing a column in defense of President Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns.

Rettig has characterized tax scofflaws as well-intentioned citizens who want to hand over their fair share, but simply lack the necessary knowledge. “There are a lot of wannabe taxpayers, who just don’t know how to get back into the system,” he said in 2004. “When you provide some incentive for people to come forward, you find a tremendous number of folks step up to the plate.”

But in 2005, Rettig publicly defended a tax sheltering practice called the S Corporation Charitable Contribution Strategy, in which a firm donates shares to a tax-exempt entity, and then buys them back several years later, in order to maximize capital gains, which are taxed at much lower rates than the shares would have been initially.

“The SC2 transaction is not the poster child for abusive tax shelters that the government would portray,” Rettig told the Los Angeles Times. “The tax result may be highly objectionable to the IRS. But as a technical matter, many knowledgeable practitioners are convinced it will be upheld in litigation.” Rettig said at the time that he represented clients utilizing the practice, but did not specify who. KPMG, the accounting firm which developed SC2, was later subject to a wide-ranging tax-fraud indictment for its tax-sheltering practices; three people were ultimately convicted, while charges against 13 were dismissed. The SC2 strategy was banned by the IRS in April 2004.

One of Rettig’s current clients is Gregg Ritchie, an investor who once headed a tax avoidance working group at KPMG, and is now involved in a dispute with the IRS. In a 1998 letter which later became public, Ritchie—who was tasked with selling tax-shelter strategies to wealthy individuals—recommended that the firm “make the business/strategic decision not to register” with the IRS, as the fees KPMG stood to earn from its tax-sheltering practice would comfortably dwarf fines it might receive. Ritchie was indicted in 2005 for conspiring to defraud the IRS; the government claimed KPMG’s scheme resulted in the loss of at least $11 billion in tax revenue. Charges against Ritchie were ultimately dismissed due to prosecutorial misconduct. The nature of Ritchie’s current dispute with the IRS, for which Rettig is providing counsel, could not be immediately ascertained—but Rettig’s past comments indicate that he has been amenable to the tax-avoidance tactics Ritchie once employed. (Rettig did not represent Ritchie in the earlier criminal case.) The current tax dispute had been scheduled for trial in November 2017 but was delayed, and is still pending.

Another recent Rettig client is Joseph Wender, a vintner and senior consultant at Goldman Sachs, whose claim to fame over the course of his career is having facilitated big bank mergers in the ‘90s involving Wells Fargo, Bank of America, and Chase—all of which hastened the consolidation of the banking industry, which later came to be seen as a precursor to the 2008 financial crisis. Rettig represented Wender in a dispute with the acting IRS commissioner in 2017. Details of Wender’s complaint were not immediately available.

Rettig has also represented corporate clients with tax woes. CVB Financial Corp., which retained Rettig’s services in 2017, sought relief for penalties it said it had incurred after its acquisition of San Joaquin Bank in 2009. The bank had failed in the wake of the financial crisis, in large part due to real estate loans that went bust. The IRS calculated that CVB had underasessed its income from the acquisition, and levied additional taxes. CVB then claimed this additional levying resulted in their overpayment of $370,070, and demanded a refund. After entering mediation proceedings, CVB withdrew the complaint.

“The IRS must balance service to the taxpayer community with an appropriate degree of enforcement of our nation’s tax laws,” Rettig wrote in a 2013 column. In 2006, Rettig delivered a lecture entitled: “Minimizing Exposure to Scrutiny in Your Client’s Wealth Transfer Strategies – Views From the Tax Court and the IRS.” Given how he has frequently taken legal positions at odds with IRS policy, it remains to be seen which interests he intends on “servicing” as IRS commissioner.

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