Tax Abuse Rampant in Nonprofits, IRS Says
By Albert B. Crenshaw
Washington Post Staff Writer

Charities and other nonprofits exempted from taxes because they serve a
public purpose have become a hotbed of tax evasion and abuse, according
to the head of the Internal Revenue Service. "We can see that tax abuse
is increasingly present in the sector," and unless the government takes
effective steps to curb it, such organizations risk "the loss of the
faith and support that the public has always given to this sector,"
Internal Revenue Commissioner Mark W. Everson said in a letter to the
Senate Finance Committee detailing abuses his agency has found.

fake charity 

He said "the IRS is finding problems in virtually every type of
tax-exempt organization. Nonprofits include not only charities, but
colleges and universities, many hospitals, pension plans, trade
associations and think tanks. In fact, eight of the 10 largest private
employers in the District are nonprofits. Unfortunately, we have no
precise way to gauge the revenue impact of these issues," Everson said,
though he noted that the nonprofit sector, including pension plans and
the like, now totals roughly 3 million entities controlling $8 trillion
in assets. "It's a seminal letter that rips off the rose-colored glasses
with which we usually look at tax-exempt organizations," Senate Finance
Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) said yesterday. "What's going on
isn't a pretty picture in the harsh light." The Finance Committee began
examining the nonprofit sector last summer, finding, among other things,
that localities and transit systems were collecting fees for allowing
corporations to benefit from tax shelters designed to help finance
public works. Several provisions of last fall's tax bill were aimed at
abuses uncovered by the panel, but members have suspected, and Everson's
letter confirms, that many more exist. 
The findings have already sent alarms through the nonprofit community.
Last month the industry-convened Panel on the Nonprofit Sector offered a
preliminary report on how laws could be tightened and practices improved
to curb abuse. In some cases fraud and abuse are committed by the
nonprofit itself, such as when a charity is established to benefit its
main donor; in other cases, the nonprofit acts an enabler for
tax-shelter promoters, such as when a municipality or union takes a fee
to participate in a deal that allocates "profits" to it and losses to
wealthy individuals. Everson said in his letter, which covered 14 pages,
that nearly half of the IRS's list of 31 major abusive tax-shelter
schemes "have the potential to involve tax-indifferent parties," as the
IRS calls entities that don't have to worry about paying taxes. Everson
raised particular concerns about nonprofit hospitals and how hard it is
to distinguish them from for-profit hospitals; political activity by
nonprofits; misuse of entities set up to allow religious leaders to hold
property and conduct business for the benefit of a religious
organization; and deals designed to allow members of a tribe to benefit
from gambling revenue without owing taxes. key issue for the government
is not just collecting more revenue, but also ensuring that tax benefits
extended to "this sector of the economy achieve their intended results."
Grassley agreed. "In exchange for these very generous tax breaks,
charitable assets should be going to those in need. More and more, we're
seeing that some people view charities and charitable gifts as a chance
to help themselves, not others," he said. Acknowledging that "our
enforcement presence faded in the late 1990s," Everson attributed much
of the growth of problems to "weak governance practices" among
nonprofits and "a culture [in the sector] that has become more casual
about compliance [with tax laws] and less resistant to noncompliance."
Everson, who said that the IRS lacks adequate resources to rein in bad
conduct, also noted that while the nonprofit sector has evolved and
grown over the years, tax law and regulation have changed much less.
"Since 1969 there has been only limited review of the rules relating to
tax-exempt status," Everson said. For example, many tax penalties are a
function of the tax that should have been paid. When the entity is
tax-exempt and thus owes no tax, doubling the taxes owed as a penalty is
meaningless. Also, in some cases, the IRS's only weapon is to revoke an
organization's tax exemption -- "a 'remedy' that may work a
disproportionate hardship on innocent charitable beneficiaries," Everson
said. Among the most serious problems highlighted by Everson is the
growth of entities that allow taxpayers to make a deductible donation
but delay shifting the money or other assets to the ultimate charitable
beneficiary. These include "donor-advised funds" and "supporting
organizations." Donor-advised funds have been around since the 1930s but
have become more popular in recent years, in part because major mutual
fund companies have started selling such funds to the general public.
Supporting organizations are charities that support other charitable or
tax-exempt organizations. University endowment funds, for example, may
be supporting organizations. There are three categories of supporting
organizations, one of which is a particular source of problems because
its supporting relationship is "least formalized," Everson said. Both
donor-advised funds and supporting organizations allow donors to take a
deduction without requiring that the donation be received by the
ultimate beneficiary, leaving assets to be held in the fund or
organization and accumulate tax-free. And unlike private foundations,
they are not subject to minimum payout rules or prohibitions on
self-dealing. "They are, therefore, uniquely tax-favored," a study by
the Congressional Research Service last month said. "We have found that
certain promoters encourage individuals to establish purported
donor-advised fund arrangements that are used for a taxpayer's personal
benefit, and some charities that sponsor these funds may be complicit in
the abuse," Everson said. Supporting-organization abuses include
donations of money that is then lent back to the donor, and the
possibility of donating assets and then buying them back at a discount,
Everson and the CRS observed. A related problem is the valuation of
non-cash assets donated to these and other charities. When such assets
are not publicly traded securities, the taxpayer has an incentive to
inflate the value, and the charity has little incentive to challenge
that. That leaves the IRS with the arduous task of revaluing the
donation and then possibly defending its revaluation in court.
Currently, Everson said, the IRS is auditing 50 donors of conservation
easements and several exempt organizations that receive such easements.
It is doing a "pre-audit review" of 400 open-space easement donations,
"to be followed by a similar review of 700 facade easements." Donation
of easements on the facades of houses in historic areas has grown
dramatically. The homeowner donates an easement -- giving up the right
to alter the facade -- and deducts the amount by which that has reduced
the value of the house. But because of restrictions that often already
apply to such property, "the taxpayers may, in fact, be giving up
nothing, or very little," Everson said. "A taxpayer cannot give up a
right that he or she does not have." Such easements have become a
significant issue in the District.