The IRS Is Aggressively Auditing “Global High-Wealth Individuals”—People Just Like Mitt Romney

Mitt Romney<a href="http://www.shutterstock.com/gallery-87499p1.html?cr=00&pl=edit-00">Maria Dryfhout</a> / <a href="http://www.shutterstock.com/?cr=00&pl=edit-00">Shutterstock.com</a>


In 2009, IRS Commissioner Doug Shulman announced that the IRS had created a new task force to audit people he called “global high-wealth individuals.” These new IRS targets, Shulman explained, have tens of millions of dollars in income and assets and “make use of sophisticated financial, business, and investment arrangements with complicated legal structures and tax consequences.” They often have an intricate web of related business entities like S-corporations and other pass-through entities they control, along with various off-shore accounts and business entities. In other words, they’re people like Mitt Romney.

There aren’t that many people in the “global high-wealth individual” group—only about 8,000 taxpayers a year who have more than $10 million in annual income—and Romney is “exactly the kind of taxpayer the program was designed to look at,” says Rebecca Wilkins, a lawyer at the Citizens for Tax Justice who used to work with rich clients as a CPA. It’s possible for someone with a lot of income, like a corporate CEO, to have a fairly simple tax return, Wilkins says. But Romney’s return from 2010 (the only completed one he’s released so far) weighs in at 203 pages; 55 pages are simply devoted to disclosing the existence of a host of foreign transactions in tax havens like the Cayman Islands. In his domestic portfolio, there’s Romney’s IRA, to which he was legally able to contribute only around $30,000 a year but which is now mysteriously worth between $21 and $102 million. It’s the sort of stuff that the new IRS unit is supposed to vet.

Romney’s campaign has said he’s never been audited. “I pay all the taxes that are legally required and not a dollar more,” Romney said during a January primary debate. But IRS audits on Romney’s fellow elite global high-wealth individuals have turned up quite a bit of extra money for the government. Out of the 36 high-wealth individuals audited in fiscal 2011 and the first five months of fiscal 2012, the IRS discovered an extra $47 million in taxes that should have been paid by 24 people in that group. Those figures suggest that some mega-rich people using aggressive-but-legal tax avoidance schemes are still not paying all they owe. There’s no telling whether Romney deserves an audit or would pass one. But as long as he doesn’t release his tax returns, speculation will continue about what’s on those returns and whether they need a good look.

DOES IT FEEL LIKE POLITICS IS AT A BREAKING POINT?

Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate

Share your feedback: We’re planning to launch a new version of the comments section. Help us test it.