After Documentary, Scientology’s Tax-Exempt Earnings Attracting Attention

Scientology's Tax Exempt Earnings Under Scrutiny
Scientology’s Tax Exempt Earnings Under Scrutiny

The Church of Scientology is getting a lot of attention these days thanks to “Going Clear”, HBO’s recent documentary on Scientology and a number of its practices. One aspect of Scientology which is receiving even more attention than before is the church’s tax-exempt status. Part of the controversy extends to how the Church of Scientology actually received its tax-exempt status—and to just what ends it uses it. After being hit with over 2,400 lawsuits at once from Scientologists, the IRS, after years of rejecting Scientology’s requests for a change in their tax status, gave it tax exemptions typically applied towards churches in 1993.

Tax Exemptions All Around

While the Church of Scientology hasn’t issued a clear response to questions raised by the documentary, one thing that’s definitely not in question is whether Scientology is making use of its tax-exempt status. Fortune’s Chris Matthews, citing the Scientology news website The Scientology Money Project, estimates that the Church of Scientology is worth somewhere in the area of $1.75 billion, with most of that money wrapped up in real estate. About 70% of that real estate is tax-exempt, meaning that a change in tax could possibly land the church a tax bill of $20 million or so a year.

Matthews cites a number of different sources which make a compelling case that Scientology uses its tax-exemption in ways that are clearly commercial, with examples such as a Tampa Bay Times investigation from 2010 which discovered that Scientology had not been paying a 5% occupancy tax for years. It turns out that Scientologists visiting the head offices in Clearwater were staying at hotels owned by Scientology without paying the tax. It is cases such these, now becoming increasingly visible as more similar stories emerge, that are keeping the debate surrounding Scientology’s tax-exempt status alive in the public.

Against the Public Interest?

In a recent interview with The Wrap, Alex Gibney, the director of Going Clear, noted that the main argument against Scientology losing its tax-exempt status was not predicated on whether or not it’s a “real” church, but rather that Scientology wields its tax-exempt status in order to pursue policies which are not in the public interest. In his documentary alleging that people working for the Church of Scientology often earn as little as 40 cents an hour and accusing the Church of illegal imprisonment and torture at the highest levels, Gibney’s central argument departs from the usual tack: that Scientology isn’t a real religion. Gibney argues instead that the religion is a public threat.

While tax exemption is hard to get, it’s also extremely hard to lose, and the IRS will require a great deal of proof of the claims like those made in the documentary and those from former church members who see themselves as victims of a cult. The Church of Scientology reportedly keeps files on all its members to use against them in case they leave the church, making getting that proof even more difficult than it otherwise would be. The evidence presented in Going Clear is damning, but it hasn’t cost Scientology its tax-exempt status—yet.

Native American Tribes, with Tax-Free Advantage in Mind, Consider the Recreational Marijuana Industry

Legalized Marijuana Could Be A Boon to Native Americans
Legalized Marijuana Could Be A Boon to Native Americans

With growth from the gaming industry leveling off in most locations, many Native American tribes are now considering a brand new source of income in states where marijuana has been legalized, either medically and recreationally. As more and more states–including New York–legalize marijuana in one form or another, Native Americans will have a huge advantage over other retailers in the business: Tribal earnings are not subject to federal income tax laws, as long as they are earned on the reservation and are not distributed to individuals as earnings.

The Native American Tax Advantage

The advantages that would be enjoyed by Native American tribes for the sale of marijuana would be similar to the tax-exempt status they already enjoy in those states where gaming is conducted on reservations. 422 tribal gambling facilities in 28 different states earned $26.5 billion, $27.9 billion, and $28 billion from 2011 through 2013, none of which was taxable by the federal government.

Even if commercial activities are conducted on tribal lands, they are exempt from taxes, as long as they are not conducted by individuals. Individuals within the tribes are U.S. citizens and they can be taxed, which is why corporations are usually formed before embarking on a gaming enterprise, and why the same would likely be true of the marijuana business. The legal status of the corporation prevents any federal intervention or taxation on the income from gaming currently, and barring legislation that alters this status the same would be true of income generated from growing and selling legal marijuana.

Tribes must be careful, however, not to distribute earnings from gaming or marijuana sales to individuals as compensation for their work in the industry. These earnings can be taxed, but there is another federal law which comes to the individual tribe members’ aid in this situation. Earnings can be distributed to individuals as payments from a general welfare program that is earmarked for the needs of families and individuals, relative to health, food, and other essentials that are not related to compensation for services.

State Tax Laws

At the state level, Native Americans cannot be taxed on income that is generated from reservation resources unless that income is generated within the state but not within the boundaries of the reservation. In effect, this neutralizes attempts by state agencies to levy any kind of tax on the potential earnings of Native Americans from either gaming or marijuana growing. Marijuana grown on the reservation would thus be completely un-taxable in any state where it is grown.

As one might expect, this kind of exemption makes both the federal government and state governments very uneasy, and inclined to eye the legislation which currently grants such sweeping freedom from taxation very closely. As Native American enterprises begin entering the preliminary phases of entering the retail marijuana market and the media notes the enormous taxation advantages they would enjoy, federal agencies and state agencies are both taking hard looks at the situation.

It is hard to estimate exactly how lucrative the marijuana growing industry could be for Native Americans, but assuming it is on par with the gaming industry, a huge windfall would accrue to tribes all across the country. Some experts feel so strongly that they’ve said that growing marijuana could eventually eclipse the gaming industry as a source of income, and for tribes that have precious few sources of income on reservations, the allure of huge profits is likely to be overwhelming.

IRS Commissioner Fired Amid Scandal; Where’s My Refund!

IRS Commissioner Fired
IRS Commissioner Fired

By Benjamin K. Brenner, President

President Obama–through Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew–forced acting IRS commissioner Steven Miller to tender his resignation today following the recent disclosure that the IRS actively and unfairly targeted conservative and Tea Party groups applying for tax exempt status; a gross violation of a government body that is supposed to be above the political fray. 

The outrage has now reached a fevered pitch, with the FBI now getting involved with the investigation. While the President and his administration appears to be insulated from the fall out thus far, criminal charges may be forthcoming, with a key person of interest being Lois Lerner who is in charge of the Tax Exempt division of the IRS:

“Lois Lerner lied to me,” said Representative Jim Jordan, Republican of Ohio, who helped initiate the Congressional investigation of the I.R.S.

Ms. Lerner knew of the increased scrutiny given to Tea Party groups since 2010, but told reporters last Friday that she was not aware of any additional scrutiny given to any group and only heard about this through media reports.  She along with many other IRS employees are expected to be called in front of congress shortly:

The House Oversight Committee requested five senior I.R.S. officials be made available for interviews by May 20, including the director of rulings and agreements, Holly Paz; a former screening group manager in the exempt-organizations determinations division, John Shafer; and a former advocacy group manager, Joseph Herr.

“Potentially dozens of I.R.S. employees are involved with the original targeting, the failure to correct the problem and the failure to promptly report the truth to Congress and the American people,” said Meghan Snyder, a spokeswoman for Mr. Jordan.

While Mr. Miller–and what is sure to be others–has taken the fall for this scandal, one can’t help but think what involvement if any the previous IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman had.  Mr. Shulman had been commissioner since May 2008, and just recently stepped down last November.  He oversaw an aggressive agenda that made some of biggest changes the IRS has seen in decades.  While initially lauded, many of these changes have been riddled with delays, errors and met with contempt.

Mr. Shulman was integral in developing and integrating a universal licensing and annual continuing education requirements for professional paid tax preparers.  But these requirements were halted by a federal judge right before the 2013 tax season began citing that the IRS did not have the authority to implement these requirements.  The IRS appealed part of the decision, but again were overruled.  With millions of dollars already spent and industries spawned to provide these paid preparer requirements, it seems like a foregone conclusion that eventually they will go into effect; either by appealing the decision or by going through a body that does have the authority to regulate the industry.  Nevertheless, this new scandal will only serve to divert more time & energy away from this project, ultimately leaving the consumer to suffer the most.

Furthermore, Mr. Shulman led the charge in “modernizing” the IRS; particularly the Modernized E-File Program (MeP).  With the new MeP, taxpayers would get their refunds in a matter of days, not weeks; all while being kept abreast of their entire filing process with faster updates.  The only problem was that it didn’t work.  The MeP was put into effect for the 2012 tax season.  When it became clear that the MeP was not functioning, it was scrapped, and the IRS was forced to go back to their old E-File program for the remainder of the 2012 tax season.  This year (2013) the IRS fully replaced the old program with the MeP, but the tax season was already riddled by delays, due to the last minute fiscal cliff negotiations. At first, the MeP was working as advertised: refunds were being released quicker, and the IRS even claimed you could get updates on refund statuses every 24 hours. But since then its been glitch after glitch, culminating in what has been dubbed the “Education Credit Debacle“, where the IRS allowed hundreds of thousands of tax returns with IRS form 8863 to be filed early causing serious delays.  Some of the affected taxpayers could not even get verification that their returns were filed!  And the problems haven’t stopped yet.  As of the writing of this post, many taxpayers who filed in February & March still have not received their refunds and the IRS is offering no explanation.  Last but not least, the new MeP has done next to nothing to combat the explosion of Identity Theft and Fraud that plagued the IRS is recent years.  

Once again, it is the hardworking taxpayer that is getting the short end of the stick.  If we don’t file our taxes on time, penalties, interest, garnishments, liens, levies, etc. can be and are assessed.  But what happens when the IRS does not live up to it’s end of the bargain?  As of now, it appears nothing. Supposedly the IRS must pay interest after a certain date if they do not release refunds, but that date is not static.  All the IRS has to do (and has done) is send a “document request” like requesting a copy of your W-2s…EVEN THOUGH THE IRS ALREADY HAS ACCESS TO THAT INFORMATION.  I have yet to see a taxpayer actually receive interest from the IRS.  And the interest rate they supposedly give is far less than what IRS charges us if we are late.

While there is sure to be more to come out from this story, the politicization of it is not good news for anyone.  Some politicians have been searching for a scandal ever since Obama took office.  So now that they have one, how will it play out to a public so tired of other “scandals”?  It’s the “Boy Who Cried Wolf” syndrome.  And that is the crux of the problem.  While our elected officials have their hearings, while IRS employees start losing their jobs, and the midterm campaign season heats up, average American taxpayers of all stripes, creeds and political affiliations are ultimately the ones that are being ignored. 

Do you have an IRS horror story?  Share it with us in the comments section.

Source: NY Times