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I.R.S. whistle-blowing programs prompt financial responsibility

Posted on September 12, 2012 | by WSN Editorial Board

The Internal Revenue Service is most often associated with collecting taxpayer money, not doling it out. But yesterday, the I.R.S. paid its largest award — a staggering $104 million — to Bradley Birkenfeld, a former banker-turned-white-collar-criminal-turned-whistle-blower from UBS. Because of the crucial information Birkenfeld provided, the I.R.S. was able to recover billions in unpaid taxes.

The I.R.S. revamped its whistle-blower program in 2006 to reward individuals who report tax evaders. However, due to delays in the system, fewer whistle-blowers came forward and less money was collected by the program in 2011 compared to previous years. Birkenfeld’s huge payoff is a promising step towards changing the amount of money the program acquires, as potential whistle-blowers see the concrete benefits of reporting the gross negligence of their companies or clients.

There has been a move by those in power to silence would-be whistle-blowers with financial penalties or even prosecution. The I.R.S.’s action in this case provides an optimistic glimpse for those who report evidence of grave abuse or misconduct. Furthermore, by shining a light into the crevices that banks like UBS use to secure financial windfalls, tax laws already flex their muscular one-size-fits-all policies in an attempt to leave no culprits unpunished.

The program sends a strong message to tax-dodgers: Tax evasion is intolerable and the I.R.S. will use all means necessary to catch those who try to cheat the system. Although awarding informants who sound the alarm on their own illegal activities may seem unjustified, these actions encourage informants to help uncover dirty deals and recollect stolen money. It incentivises truth over power.

The I.R.S.’s move resonates beyond the fight against tax evasion. The program fixes a spotlight on an entire global financial system forced into a paradigm shift towards responsibility and transparency. Concealed trades that over-leverage bank assets and scandals like the LIBOR manipulation are coming out of the woodwork, and this encouragement of whistle-blowing will accelerate the process. Better late than never.

A version of this article appeared in the Sept. 12 print edition. Email the WSN editorial board at


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Felipe De La Hoz

Multimedia Editor | Felipe De La Hoz is a Colombian national studying journalism at the College of Arts and Sciences. Having been born in Colombia and raised in the United States, Mexico and Brazil, Felipe is a trilingual travel aficionado and enjoys working in varied and difficult environments. Apart from his photography, Felipe enjoys investigative reporting and interviews, interviewing the likes of Colombian ex-M-19 guerrilla fighters and controversial politician Jimmy McMillan. He has covered everything from governmental conferences to full-blown riots, as well as portraiture shoots and dining photography. Having worked under Brazilian photojournalists for Reuters and AFP, Felipe hopes to one day work on demanding journalistic projects and contribute to the global news cycle.

Ann Schmidt

News Editor | Ann is a liberal studies sophomore who lived in Florence during her freshman year. She plans on double-majoring in journalism and political science and is always busy. She is constantly making lists and she loves to laugh.


Daniel Yeom

Daniel started at the Features desk of WSN last Spring, writing restaurant reviews whilst indulging on free food and consequently getting fat. Last Fall, he was the dining editor, and he this semester he is senior editor. Daniel is in Gallatin (living the dream) studying Food & Travel Narratives, incorporating aspects of Food Studies, Journalism, and Media, Culture, and Communication. He loves food more than life itself.

Hannah Luu

Deputy Multimedia Editor | Hannah Luu is a ridiculously great Deputy Multimedia Editor. She is a sophomore from Northern California. If you think Northern California means San Francisco you might need to closely examine a map. She is passionate about NPR and being half Asian.

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