DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson recently announced that a public hearing will take place later this month before the Committee of the Whole to consider a bill (The False Claims Amendment Act of 2017, B22-0166) that would allow tax-related false claims against large taxpayers. The hearing will begin at 9:30 am on Thursday, December 20, 2018, in Room 412 of the John A. Wilson Building. More details on the hearing and opportunity to testify are available here. The bill is sponsored by Councilmember Mary Cheh, and co-sponsors of the bill include Committee on Finance and Revenue Chairman Jack Evans and Councilmember Anita Bonds. Nearly identical bills were introduced by Councilmember Cheh in 2013 and 2016, but did not advance.
As introduced, the bill would amend the existing false claims statute in the District of Columbia to expressly authorize tax-related false claims actions against a person that “reported net income, sales, or revenue totaling $1 million or more in the tax filing to which the claim pertained, and the damages pleaded in the action total $350,000 or more.”
Because the current false claims statute includes an express tax bar, this bill would represent a major policy departure in the District. See D.C. Code § 2-381.02(d) (stating that “[t]his section shall not apply to claims, records, or statements made pursuant to those portions of Title 47 that refer or relate to taxation”). As we have seen in jurisdictions like New York and Illinois, opening the door to tax-related false claims can lead to significant headaches for taxpayers and usurp the authority of the state tax agency by involving profit motivated private parties and the state Attorney General in tax enforcement decisions.
Because the statute of limitations for false claims is 10 years after the date on which the violation occurs, the typical tax statute of limitations for audit and enforcement may not protect taxpayers from false claims actions. See D.C. Code § 2-381.05(a). Treble damages would also be permitted against taxpayers for violations, meaning District taxpayers would be liable for three times the amount of any damages sustained by the District. See D.C. Code § 2-381.02(a). A private party who files a successful claim may receive between 15–25 percent of any recovery to the District if the District’s AG intervenes in the matter. If the private party successfully prosecutes the case on their own, they may receive between 25–30 percent of the amount recovered. This financial incentive encourages profit motivated bounty hunters to develop theories of liability not established or approved by the agency responsible for tax administration. Allowing private parties to intervene in the administration, interpretation or enforcement of the tax law commandeers the authority of the tax agency, creates uncertainty and can result in inequitable tax treatment. While many other problems exist with application of false claims to tax matters, those issues are beyond the scope of this blog.