Ernst & Young has agreed to pay US$123 million in a settlement with criminal prosecutors in the US, admitting that some of its most senior tax partners had been involved in developing, marketing and defending tax schemes between 1999 and 2004 to dodge taxes worth US$2 billion faced by about 200 wealthy individuals.
The deal, which ensures the international accountancy firm will not face criminal prosecution, marks the end of a tax scandal that hung over Ernst & Young for several years. The episode saw four former employees sentenced in 2010 to between 20 and 36 months in jail for involvement in tax evasion and obstructing the US Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Two last year had their convictions overturned on appeal.
The four had been members of a small Ernst & Young unit, Viper - Value Ideas Produce Extraordinary Results - set up in 1999 to devise tax strategies to market to wealthy individuals looking to shelter incomes of more than US$20 million from the taxman.
Ernst & Young admitted that products developed from the Viper division - one of which was called Currency Options Bring Reward Alternatives, or Cobra - had been designed to appear to the IRS as genuine investments when, in reality, the products were designed and marketed to clients as a series of pre-planned steps that would defer, reduce or eliminate tax bills.
In order to trick the IRS, Ernst & Young admitted its former tax experts went to great lengths not to create documents that would make clear the tax motives behind their complex strategies.
The US$123 million penalty agreed with Manhattan US attorney Preet Bharara is the same amount that Ernst & Young received in fees on the four avoidance structures it developed and marketed with law firms, banks and investment advisers.
Ernst & Young said it was "pleased to put this matter from a decade ago behind us" and gave undertakings not to get involved in such schemes again.