An electrician sued a Bel Air payroll company five years ago, alleging that it failed to submit payroll taxes for his employees, so he wonders why it took until last week for the Internal Revenue Service to start an investigation.
"They know what's going on," said Ron Biskup, owner of Biskup Electric LLC.
The authorities, including the IRS, were notified of the issue. And two other businesses also sued the payroll firm AccuPay Inc. around the same time, for similar reasons.
Still, it wasn't until after a veterinarian's office filed a suit on Feb. 27 that the IRS put its criminal division on the case. The vet's suit became the domino — after it was filed, a judge ordered AccuPay to preserve its records, the firm shut down and the Bel Air Police Department searched the company's office — that seems to have captured the IRS' attention.
Tax experts say such cases are far too common across the country. Advocates have recommended safeguards to identify red flags sooner. Yet they say the IRS has done little to prevent payroll companies from defrauding clients.
"I just can't believe this is happening again," said Lawrence D. Garr, an attorney with Dickstein Shapiro LLC in Washington.
Ten years ago, organizations that later became Garr's clients confronted a serious problem: A payroll servicer based in Silver Spring, FirstPay Inc., made off with millions of tax dollars that its clients thought had been paid to federal and state collectors.
"What the IRS did in light of FirstPay was finally start looking at these taxpayers as victims," said James Leith, the IRS' taxpayer advocate for Maryland. The IRS became more willing to negotiate over missed payments with harmed businesses, he said. But, he added, "to stop the problem … nothing's been done."
The IRS "enabled" FirstPay "to perpetrate and perpetuate its fraudulent scheme," wrote U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Paul Mannes, who sits in Greenbelt, in an August decision stemming from the FirstPay situation, which launched a decade of litigation.
Since FirstPay, there have been dozens of similar cases across the country that experts say should have encouraged change in the payroll industry's regulation. One of them is pending against a Rockville company called Focus Payroll LLC.
In the past five years, at least 24 owners and operators of payroll companies — who stole "about $300 million in employment taxes from thousands of client employers" — have been prosecuted by the Department of Justice, according to the Taxpayer Advocate Service's 2012 Annual Report to Congress, released in January.
Some of the issues at FirstPay were similar to allegations that have been leveled at AccuPay and its principals. They could not be reached for comment.
FirstPay's owner, Mark Rothman, siphoned millions of dollars off of hundreds of his clients' payroll taxes. But the victimized clients never heard from government collectors that they owed back taxes because Rothman had changed his clients' mailing addresses. Instead, he received those delinquency notices and no one was the wiser.
In 2003, Rothman died, FirstPay closed and the company was forced into bankruptcy. While figuring out their accounts, many of the firm's clients realized that they were behind on their taxes.
"The IRS failed to do due diligence by not noticing that several hundred companies and nonprofits suddenly had the same address, and all of them were delinquent in paying taxes," said Arthur Meyer Boyd, former finance director of the Friends Committee on National Legislation, which lost $170,000 in the FirstPay fraud.
Judge Mannes and others saw the IRS as complicit in the FirstPay scheme because there was no check on the company's ability to change its clients' late-payment notification addresses.
A simple safeguard that could have alerted FirstPay's clients to a problem — a dual notification system that sends an alert about the change of address to both the new and old addresses on file — is common practice for banks and online companies.
Despite urging by a trade group and the Taxpayer Advocate Service to institute such a system, the IRS has not done so.
"We would have caught that immediately," Boyd said. The Friends Committee would have known something was amiss if it had been told the payroll company changed its mailing address with the government, he said.
One AccuPay client said in a lawsuit filed last summer that the firm switched its address.