WASHINGTON – For all of the talk about slapping sanctions on Russian oligarchs, there was a notable omission in the Ukraine aid package approved this month by Congress: An infusion of money for the IRS criminal investigation arm tasked with tracking down the pricey properties of the Russian elite didn't make the cut.
The White House request to give the IRS $30 million for tracing financial activities associated with sanctioned people appeared to run afoul of broader reluctance by Republicans to put more money into IRS enforcement actions. Republicans close to the spending bill negotiations said the mission of the IRS should be to administer and enforce the U.S. tax code, not to enforce sanctions.
While the money for Ukraine in the spending bill includes $25 million for the Treasury Department's terrorism and financial intelligence unit, $17 million for its departmental offices and $19 million for the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, the only Treasury agency that did not receive its request was IRS Criminal Investigation.
Many of the sanctions levied on Russia’s elite and its Central Bank are imposed by the Treasury Department and its various enforcement arms, including those at the IRS. Along with the newly formed KleptoCapture group led by the Justice Department, the IRS plays a major part in imposing sanctions on oligarchs and supporters of Vladimir Putin.
A lack of funding for the IRS criminal investigations unit “damages the ability of our law enforcement community to do its work” said Danny Glaser, a former Treasury assistant secretary for terrorist financing and financial crimes. “The IRS criminal investigators are some of the best financial investigators in the world. It's important they are at full strength."
In its funding request to Congress, the White House said the $30 million would expand IRS Criminal Investigation's capability to find links between various businesses, conduct digital asset tracing, and identify the ownership of assets owned by oligarchs and others linked to Putin.
That money would have included purchasing more than 50 licenses to databases that can access global public records, a Treasury official told The Associated Press, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal matters. Currently, only five people have that capability.
The workforce of the investigations unit has shrunk by 25% over the course of the last decade, according to Treasury.
The unit "is in desperate need of stable, long-term funding to develop a deeper understanding of the global financial landscape and trace and seize assets that today are in the hands of criminals," Treasury said in a statement last week.
Chye-Ching Huang, executive director of the Tax Law Center at NYU Law, said the funding woes for the IRS investigations unit are part of a larger issue with the federal government relying on the IRS to step in during national and international emergencies.
“We saw that during the pandemic, when the administrative apparatus was used to get billions of dollars of aid to people and businesses in a short amount of time, and we're seeing it during a foreign policy emergency," she said.
“That points to its critical role and why lawmakers should not be starving the IRS," she said, adding that the IRS is key to “preventing criminal corruption, which is corrosive to democracy.”
Biden signed the giant spending bill into law earlier this month to fund the government through September. Included in the funding is $5.4 billion dedicated to IRS enforcement outside of criminal investigations, an increase of $225 million above fiscal 2021.
Jorge Castro, who served as counselor to the IRS commissioner during the Obama administration, said he was hopeful the agency will get more money, as the war in Ukraine shows no signs of ending.
“I suspect we're not done with additional sanctions-related bills and I'm assuming the Biden administration would like to make this a feature of its next request," he said.