WASHINGTON - Treasury Secretary Lawrence H. Summers on Monday announced a comprehensive plan to crack down on corporate tax shelters.
The three-pronged approach would require more disclosure on corporate tax returns, create an Internal Revenue Service unit dedicated to investigating tax shelters, and improve enforcement and stiffen penalties for tax evasion.
"Let me be clear: Our aim is to curb illegitimate tax avoidance," Mr. Summers said. "We have no quarrel with the natural desire of companies and individuals to minimize their tax burden by legitimate means.
"We must, however, draw the line at the pursuit of engineered transactions that have no goal other than to reduce a corporation's tax liabilities."
Saying such moves "undermine the integrity of the tax system," Mr. Summers noted that the gap between the book income of U.S. corporations and their taxable income more than doubled in the 1990s and is now in excess of $90 billion.
"Even in a very good year for the corporate sector, last year corporate tax receipts fell by 2%," he said in a speech to the Federal Bar Association. "Although some of this gap can be attributed to other causes, there is no doubt that there has been a striking growth in abusive tax shelters."
The first part of the administration's proposal would require corporate tax returns to provide more information on transactions with certain characteristics. These include significant differences between book income and taxable income, fees of $100,000 or more paid for tax advice, and guarantees against the failure to realize tax benefits.
Accountants and lawyers who promote tax shelters would be required to disclose transactions if they have tax avoidance or evasion as a "significant purpose," are issued confidentially, or earn the promoter more than $100,000 in fees. These advisers must also maintain a list of companies that make use of such transactions, and supply the list to the IRS on request.
The second part of the proposal involves the creation of a central office for tax shelter analysis within the IRS, and the strengthening of professional standards among accountants and lawyers who practice before the agency. "In extreme cases, we would contemplate suspending individuals or even whole firms from practicing before the IRS," Mr. Summers said.
The final part of the plan involves legislation that would impose tougher enforcement measures, and is designed to augment the first two. "Disclosure only deters if abuse has consequences," Mr. Summers said.
Among the consequences proposed were a penalty of $100,000 for each failure to disclose transactions with the features of a tax shelter, and a doubling of the fine for substantial understatement of income in corporate tax returns.