(Dow Jones) Tax advisors who get caught doing something wrong used to have their names-but not the gory details-put in public view. Now that's changing.
An office of the Internal Revenue Service reveals a lot more than it used to about exactly what has gotten an advisor into trouble when it publishes the outcome of a disciplinary case. Other advisors are reading the details intently.
Like the Securities and Exchange Commission, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and other government agencies, the IRS metes out justice to industry professionals who break its rules. The IRS' Office of Professional Responsibility, or OPR, investigates bad behavior by certified public accountants, tax lawyers and other tax advisors.
IRS lists of offenders used to contain names and little else. In 2008, OPR started publishing the decisions of the administrative law judges and other officials who handle its disciplinary cases. Now, the disclosures have created a body of information that tax advisors say provides much-needed insight into just how they can go wrong with the OPR and what to do if that happens.
"You always wore the stripes after the flogging, but now they are explaining why they flogged the guy," said Chris Rizek, a member in the Washington, D.C. office of law firm Caplin & Drysdale, and formerly a tax attorney at the U.S. Treasury and the Department of Justice.
The new, open approach marks a sea-change at the OPR, according to Rita A. Cavanagh, a partner in the Washington, D.C. office of law firm Latham & Watkins, LLP. She wrote a report on how to navigate an OPR investigation that appeared this week in the trade publication Tax Notes.
The industry expects more change from the office, which has been criticized for being a black box, providing too little information about how it conducts investigations and carries out disciplinary proceedings. Last year, it got a new director, Karen L. Hawkins, who is widely regarded as knowledgeable and aggressive.
The IRS did not immediately comment.
A practitioner facing a sanction by OPR may not even be aware of IRS scrutiny until he or she gets a letter alleging various violations, according to Cavanagh. Then there is not clear procedure for dealing with OPR in the early stages of an investigation, she added.
Cavanagh cited cases of interest in her report, including some the OPR lost. In one, the judge threw out allegations that John M. Sykes III had not done his due diligence in advising a hedge fund on the basis of stock it got in a transaction. In another, the judge dismissed a charge that Philip G. Panitz gave misleading information to several taxpayers regarding IRA withdrawals and workers compensation.