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Tax Authorities Were Either Unwilling To Take On The Trumps Or Lacked The Resources


The New York Times story you just heard about says the Trumps were able to get away with tax dodging for decades, and there's no evidence that state or federal officials ever did much about it. As NPR's Jim Zarroli reports, regulators were either unwilling to take the Trumps on or simply lacked the resources to do so.

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: Real estate companies such as the Trump family's are famous for finding ways to pare down their tax bills. And some of them skirt the law. They can understate the value of a property they've acquired, for instance. But NYU Law School professor Daniel Shaviro says the sheer scope of the Trump family's tax avoidance puts it in a whole other realm.

DANIEL SHAVIRO: I don't think this is just like, oh, this is tax planning as usual. It's one thing to have kind of self-serving valuations that are on the lowball side. This seems to go beyond it.

ZARROLI: Yet much of what the Trumps did apparently went under the radar for years. That doesn't surprise Pace Law School professor Bridget Crawford. She says the Internal Revenue Service for decades has simply lacked the resources to police tax fraud effectively. And years of political attacks may have made it reluctant to take on hard cases.

BRIDGET CRAWFORD: Where there's a will, there's a way, and there has been no will.

ZARROLI: Only 1 in a hundred tax returns is now audited, and Crawford says it's especially easy to do what Fred Trump is alleged to have done - pass on assets to your children without them paying much in taxes.

CRAWFORD: The fact is that gift tax doesn't raise a lot of revenue. So to the extent the IRS has resources, they are not going to be allocating it toward gift tax enforcement.

ZARROLI: The same is true at the state and local level. Although New York state officials are now investigating the Trump family's taxes, Crawford says it's taken them far too long to do so.

CRAWFORD: It appears to me that the State Department of Finance has been utterly asleep at the wheel for decades when it comes to transactions involving the Trump family.

ZARROLI: Crawford notes that questions have been raised about the Trump family's taxes for years. ProPublica has reported that President Trump sold two Manhattan condos to his son Eric for much less than they were worth in 2016. But because Trump hasn't released his tax returns, it's impossible to say whether Trump paid federal gift taxes as he was required to do.

But the extent of the activity alleged in yesterday's Times story is harder to ignore. The question is what regulators can do about it. NYU's Dan Shaviro says if fraud was committed, it's probably too late for the government to pursue a criminal case because of the statute of limitations. But Shaviro says the IRS can always decide to take another look at the Trump returns.

SHAVIRO: Fraud on a return means that it's never too late to revisit it.

ZARROLI: If the IRS finds evidence of wrongdoing, Shaviro says, it can retroactively force Fred Trump's heirs to pay back taxes, and they may have to pay civil fines as well. Jim Zarroli, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jim Zarroli is an NPR correspondent based in New York. He covers economics and business news.