You know Beanie Babies, those delightful little stuffed animals that were a sensation with children and collectors in the 1990s. They made a fortune for Ty Warner, a Chicago-area entrepreneur who owns Ty Inc., the company behind the Babies.
Beanie Babies have become the unlikely emblem for a global crackdown on tax evasion. After years of patient, sustained effort led by the U.S., a welcome reckoning is afoot.
Warner recently admitted that he cheated on his taxes by hiding money offshore. The banks and moneymen who orchestrate large-scale tax fraud have been put on notice. Bank secrecy laws in overseas financial centers such as Switzerland are losing their capacity to mask illicit dealings.
This crackdown has the potential to pay big dividends. A U.S. Senate report estimates that secret offshore accounts used to evade taxes cost the Treasury at least $100 billion a year. Factor in the steep financial penalties assessed against cheaters, and the U.S. could bring in significant revenues. Amnesty programs enabling Americans to declare their offshore holdings have attracted nearly 40,000 participants and generated $5.5 billion in back taxes and civil penalties. Removing tax havens also will promote respect for the law and improve voluntary compliance with the tax code.
These welcome developments stem from a 2006 overhaul of a government program aimed at rewarding whistle-blowers who turn in tax cheats.
After the UBS case made clear how high the stakes were, the U.S. played hardball. One of the world's oldest banks, Wegelin & Co. of Switzerland, shut down last year after pleading guilty to tax-evasion charges. More than a dozen Swiss banks and financial firms are under U.S. criminal investigation.
The Swiss tradition of hush-hush banking is going by the boards: An agreement in August between the U.S. and Switzerland will allow other Swiss banks to avoid criminal prosecution in the U.S. only if they disclose extensive information about their American clients, including those who fled Switzerland for other tax havens after the UBS case broke.
The U.S. initiative has spread beyond Switzerland to banks from India to Israel to Barbados. The most significant piece of this takes effect July 1. That's when the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, known as FATCA, will force all foreign financial firms to cooperate with the crackdown, invest in the required reporting systems and withhold funds from suspicious accounts, or risk losing access to U.S. markets.
The prospect of FATCA has encouraged dozens of tax havens to seek agreements with the U.S. for easing the transfer of tax information. The U.S. needs to move cautiously to avoid ensnaring innocent expats in a dragnet intended for cheats. Also, our government must take care in sharing information through reciprocal agreements with foreign governments about their citizens who bank here. That information could be misused. The process needs to be monitored to ensure that fears about excessive costs being imposed on foreign financial institutions do not come to pass.
Still, the U.S. approach is becoming a model because it is effective. France, Germany and other European nations have targeted their citizens who have foreign accounts, and entered into FATCA-type agreements among themselves.
Authorities say Warner has agreed to plead guilty to one count of tax evasion and pay a $53.6 million civil penalty for failing to pay taxes owed on investment income he earned from money he stashed in a secret UBS account between 1996 and 2002. Warner, who is slated to be arraigned Wednesday, could face prison time.
Skokie businessman Peter Troost, who pleaded guilty to underreporting his income by hundreds of thousands of dollars with the help of UBS, was the first taxpayer charged in Chicago's federal courts as a result of the crackdown. Troost agreed to pay more than $1 million in back taxes and a $3.75 million penalty, but U.S. District Judge John J. Tharp Jr. said financial consequences were not enough to deter wealthy individuals from cheating. Tharp sentenced Troost in July to a prison term of one year and one day.
Looks like the offshore party is over.