DOJ Targets Professional Enablers of Alleged Tax and Laundering Schemes
On December 4, the Office of the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York unsealed an elaborate indictment charging three professionals — a lawyer, an asset manager, and an accountant — along with a client in connection with an alleged tax evasion scheme arising out of the international Panama Papers scandal. At the heart of the Panama Papers story is the former Panamanian law firm of Mossack Fonseca, which had been a key offshore legal services provider until April 2016, when it became the center of a massive global controversy because approximately 11.5 million of the firm’s internal legal and financial documents were leaked to the media. These leaked documents – publicized primarily by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (“ICIJ”) – allegedly reveal a global system of undisclosed offshore accounts, money laundering and tax evasion, and how the rich and powerful around the world use shell companies to conceal assets and possible illegal activity.
The indictment and accompanying government press release stress the potentially pernicious role which professionals can play in facilitating criminal money laundering and tax schemes, as well as the role played by foreign shell companies in masking beneficial ownership. However, this indictment ultimately describes a scheme to evade taxes and hide assets. It does not allege that any of the assets were the proceeds of a separate crime, other than the tax scheme itself. Although the indictment charges a single count of conspiracy to launder money, it relies on the “international” money laundering provision, which does not require that the relevant financial transactions involve the proceeds of underlying criminality, so long as the transactions are designed to promote a criminal scheme.
In this post, we will focus solely on two of the many issues presented by the indictment: (i) the indictment “bootstraps” what are basically general tax fraud allegations into wire fraud and money laundering charges (thereby enabling the government to pursue higher statutory maximums, higher potential sentences, and criminal forfeiture, which the government would be unable to obtain through “pure” tax fraud charges), and (ii) the indictment serves as another reminder to defense lawyers of the potential consequences of presenting a client’s purportedly exculpating factual representations to the government during an investigation.