ABSTRACT: Tax practice is an integral component of the public accounting profession. Although accountancy as a profession embraces a strong public interest notion, there is an inevitable tension in tax practice between serving the client and maintaining the integrity of the tax system. Resolving this tension necessitates an ethics-infused judgment process. Ethical failures over the past decade have weakened the tax profession and called into question the extent to which practitioners in fact operate in a manner consistent with the public interest. In this paper, we explore the fundamental causes of the ethical problems that have plagued the tax profession and provide a roadmap for reform of the tax profession. Using Cressey’s (1953) fraud triangle as a framework, we first examine the normative ideal for the tax profession. We then examine the recent tax shelter abuses perpetrated by the major public accounting firms and find results consistent with our expectations under the fraud triangle analysis. In essence, ethical breakdowns resulted from the loss of a public interest emphasis, which in turn led to the explicit pursuit of commercial gain at the expense of the public interest. That the frauds were perpetrated within the context of a profession founded on a public interest notion is particularly concerning. In response to the problems observed, we identify key cultural reforms needed within the accounting academy, the accounting profession, and the tax system in order to restore trust and the public interest character of the tax profession to center stage and so guard against further adverse outcomes.

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