Tax cheats were given $1.4 billion in government-backed mortgage loans under President Obama’s economic stimulus, and the government doled out at least an additional $27 million in tax credits to delinquents who took the first-time-homebuyer tax break, according to a government audit released Wednesday.
Under government rules, delinquent taxpayers are supposed to be ineligible for the mortgage insurance program unless they have reached a repayment agreement with the Internal Revenue Service. But the Federal Housing Administration didn’t have the right controls to weed out bad applications, said the Government Accountability Office, Congress’ chief investigative arm.
That meant FHA insured $1.4 billion in mortgages for 6,327 borrowers who collectively owed $77.6 million in unpaid taxes, or an average of more than $12,000 each.
The auditors said that as a category, the tax cheats had foreclosure rates up to three times as high as other borrowers, which meant the delinquent taxpayers exposed the government to even greater risks.
“In the name of ‘stimulus,’ the federal government gave mortgage insurance to thousands of people we knew were tax cheats and had a bad track record paying their debts,” said Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, who joined a bipartisan group of other lawmakers to request the investigation. “The federal government needlessly put taxpayers on the line to help tax cheats buy homes. Congress needs to ensure that tax cheats are no longer allowed to take advantage of FHA programs.”
In addition to the mortgages, the auditors found that more than half of the tax-delinquent borrowers claimed the first-time-homebuyers’ credit, worth up to $8,000.
GAO said there is no prohibition against someone claiming the credit, even though they still have unpaid tax bills. The credit is refundable, meaning taxpayers can get a check back from the government if the benefit exceeds their liability. IRS rules generally call for the agency to subtract any unpaid taxes from the refund, but in three of the nine cases that GAO analyzed in depth, it said the taxpayers had declared bankruptcy, meaning the IRS was prevented from docking the refunds.
The report was the GAO’s second study looking at tax cheats and the stimulus.
In the first report, GAO said thousands of contracts and grants were paid out under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to those with unpaid tax bills.
Mr. Obama pushed the $831 billion economic stimulus in early 2009 as a means of bolstering the faltering economy, and promised to use strict controls to cut fraud and abuse. At its peak in mid-2010, it was responsible for as many as 3.6 million jobs, but could have funded as few as 700,000, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
Part of the Recovery Act was aimed at shoring up the housing market, which included the first-time-homebuyer tax credit and the mortgage assistance, which let the FHA insure loans at a higher rate in high-cost housing markets.
About 1.7 million individuals claimed the tax credit, while FHA insured more than $20 billion in mortgages for 87,000 homeowners, thanks to the Recovery Act provisions.
Under a White House policy, buyers who are delinquent on their federal taxes are not supposed to receive the mortgage assistance, unless they have worked out a repayment agreement with the IRS. But FHA rules don’t prod private lenders to ask for that information, and the FHA doesn’t have a system to work with the IRS to get that information.
Mr. Coburn joined Sens. Max Baucus, Montana Democrat; Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat; Chuck Grassley, Iowa Republican; and Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican, to request a review of the program.
“The stimulus-spending program was ill-conceived, with far too little oversight,” Mr. Grassley said. “It shouldn’t surprise anyone, unfortunately, that tax dollars have gone to tax cheats. It’s another one of many negative consequences of writing checks without enough checks and balances.”
Compounding the matter, those with tax problems are more likely to end up in foreclosure. Nearly a third of mortgage holders with unpaid taxes were “seriously delinquent” on their payments, and 6.3 percent had been foreclosed - a rate nearly three times higher than homeowners who were paid up with the IRS.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development accepted the report and will work with the IRS to try to get access to information that would help it cull tax cheats, Carol J. Galante, an acting assistant secretary, said in the department’s official response.
She said they also will try to clarify FHA rules so lenders are clear about the eligibility requirements for loans.