Tax Compliance:

Some Hurricanes Katrina and Rita Disaster Assistance Recipients Have Unpaid Federal Taxes

GAO-08-101R: Published: Nov 16, 2007. Publicly Released: Dec 17, 2007.

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Since February 2004, we have issued a series of reports detailing how some organizations and individuals, including defense, civilian agency, and General Services Administration (GSA) contractors; tax-exempt (not-for-profit) organizations; and Medicare physicians, abused the federal tax system at the same time they were doing business with or receiving benefits from the federal government. While we performed this work it came to our attention that some organizations and individuals that were recipients of federal grants and other direct assistance were also abusing the tax system. Thus, Congress asked us to perform additional work and report specifically on organizations and individuals that abuse the federal tax system at the same time they receive federal grants or other similar types of federal assistance, known as direct payments for specified use (direct assistance) programs. Based on Congressional request, we completed a forensic audit and related investigations of unpaid federal taxes owed by recipients of the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) Individuals and Households Program (IHP) following hurricanes Katrina and Rita. IHP is a federal direct assistance program authorized by the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act (Stafford Act), as amended by the Disaster Mitigation Act of 2000. We conducted our audit of IHP concurrently with our broader audit of federal grant and direct assistance recipients that have unpaid federal taxes, which Congress also requested. We will be reporting the results of that work separately. The specific objectives of our work were to (1) determine, to the extent practical, the estimated magnitude of federal taxes owed by individuals receiving IHP disaster assistance benefit payments following hurricanes Katrina and Rita and (2) provide illustrative examples of abusive or criminal activity related to the federal tax system by IHP recipients with unpaid federal taxes.

While about 95 percent of all IHP recipients of disaster relief assistance following hurricanes Katrina and Rita paid their federal taxes, tens of thousands owed federal taxes at the time of the disaster. We identified about 80,000 of the 1.5 million individuals (about 5 percent) who received disaster assistance benefits for hurricanes Katrina and Rita and owed over $700 million combined in unpaid federal taxes prior to those hurricanes. However, our estimates of the taxes owed by these recipients is understated in that we did not include amounts owed by individuals who have not filed tax returns or who have failed to report the full amount of taxes due (referred to as nonfilers and underreporters) and for whom IRS has not determined that specific tax debts are owed. FEMA officials stated that they do not screen disaster applicants for tax debts. FEMA officials stated that there is no law or regulation that requires FEMA to screen IHP applicants prior to providing disaster assistance. The five IHP recipients with which we chose to illustrate abusive and criminal activity related to the federal tax system had tax debts ranging from about $400,000 to over $2 million. Our investigation found that a number of these individuals had a history of failing to file tax returns for several years prior to the hurricane disasters. We also found instances in which IHP recipients attempted to transfer property to avoid IRS seizure. For example, one IHP recipient in the oil and gas industry forged a third party's signature to illegally transfer land. Another IHP recipient, a lawyer, transferred a large quantity of stock to a family member while IRS was taking collection actions against the lawyer. We received written comments on a draft of this report from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). In its written comments, DHS stated that FEMA's administration of disaster assistance programs to victims of hurricanes Katrina and Rita with tax liabilities was consistent with federal law and policy. As recognized in our draft report, DHS is not required to screen applicants for tax debts. We have reprinted DHS's written comments in their entirety in the enclosure. In addition, IRS and DHS provided technical comments on the draft report, which we incorporated as appropriate.

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