Ronald H. Drucker, a veteran CPA, says he has known about New York real estate investor Fred Trump and his son Donald since he moved his bride into the Trumps' Beach Haven Apartments in Brooklyn in 1966. His aunt "tipped the on-site rental agent $50" to get the young couple their first place.
Drucker has been advising rich people on their taxes for a half-century, as family-owned-business partner at the old Laventhol & Horwarth accounting firm, and as founding partner in Philadelphia's Drucker & Scaccetti. Naturally, he read with interest the New York Times' Tuesday articles claiming "dubious tax schemes, in some cases outright fraud," by Donald Trump, now our president, in reducing the government's cut from past profits on the family's properties.
The Trump administration has called the Times work "misleading." On Friday, Drucker's firm posted his remarkable account of how the piece speaks to him after a professional lifetime wrestling with wealthy clients over how little they could legitimately pay as their share of the public's claim on their income and wealth.
Drucker says he's "amazed" at how the Times depicted the Trumps as they "played the valuation game to avoid income, gift, and estate taxes." The strategies described can be legitimate — but only until "carried to an extreme with erroneous valuations" that ignore "the real economics and tax consequences of the transaction."
"When one plays the totally subjective valuation game in the extreme, tax avoidance borders on tax evasion," writes Drucker. There are trusts and estate-planning tools that can postpone or transfer liabilities. But it's going too far when you obscure gifts or transactions to avoid paying taxes. "The expectation is, realistic valuations reflecting the real economics of the transaction will be used. To do otherwise is tax fraud."
Who's most to blame: the Trumps, who benefited, or the advisers — accountants and fiduciaries, trustees and executors — who took fees for enabling them? Writes Drucker: "It's the family's advisers who should have set ethical boundaries and educated them on the difference between tax avoidance and tax evasion. Shame on the Trumps, and shame on their advisers."
The word ethics does not appear among the 73,000 pages of the U.S. tax code, Drucker points out. "It is we, the financial and accounting professionals, who have the duty of upholding the highest ethical standards for ourselves and our clients."
He says the family appears to have won the "audit lottery," counting on the fact that relatively few people are audited, or caught, by IRS or New York state tax officials.
Will the Trumps be called to account after all those years? "The article suggests criminal behavior, but the statute of limitations is now closed for criminal prosecution. Civil actions and related penalties remain open with New York state already indicating they may take a fresh look at 20-year-old transactions and returns," Drucker writes.
Will Trump's political critics gain from old tax war stories? Trump's public relations people will call the investigation "fake news" by the "failing New York Times." Trump will do the same — unless state and federal auditors decide to review the transactions that the Times unearthed, Drucker predicts.
And will American voters care? Trump supporters, if they read the Times, "would likely give him a congratulatory salute for a job well done. After all, no one likes paying taxes," Drucker concludes.