Robert Cole Remembered

Robert Cole, who worked in the field of transfer pricing for many years, died last month at age 81. In addition to improving the field he worked in, Bob was a friend to Transfer Pricing Report, and would call occasionally with suggestions to make the service more reader-friendly. Reproduced below is the article about him that ran in today's issue of the report.

Robert Cole Remembered for Contributions to Transfer Pricing Over 40-Year Career


Robert Cole, who died May 15 at age 81, is remembered by colleagues for his tireless efforts to improve the practice of transfer pricing during a career that spanned more than 40 years.

“He was a force of nature,” said Samuel Maruca, director of Transfer Pricing Operations at the Internal Revenue Service, where Cole ended his career. “He wasn't afraid to push when he saw something that needed to be fixed or improved.”

Henry Birnkrant of Alston & Bird in Washington, D.C., where Cole worked for many years before joining the IRS in 2012, said he was widely respected both in and outside the government “as someone who really thought it was critical to get transfer pricing right.”

Cole graduated magna cum laude from Harvard, where he was an editor of the Harvard Law Review, in 1956. After several years in the private sector, he joined the U.S. Treasury in 1967 and was appointed its first international tax counsel in 1971.


 At Treasury, he represented the United States in negotiating tax treaties with Australia, Belgium, and Japan, as well as the Treaty on Mutual Assistance in Criminal Matters with Switzerland. In addition, he supervised the issuance of key international tax guidance, including the U.S. procedures for using tax treaties to resolve transfer pricing and other disputes.

In 1973, Cole left the government and became a founding partner of the firm that later became Cole, Corette & Abrutyn, concentrating on transfer pricing and tax treaty issues. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, as transfer pricing disputes began to command increasing resources from both governments and taxpayers, he helped the IRS develop its Advance Pricing Agreement Program, persuading a client to enter the program in its initial stages. The success of that case paved the way for the institutionalization of APA programs at the IRS and around the world.

In 1997, Cole joined Alston & Bird and became the first head of its international tax practice. He also edited and wrote numerous chapters for A Practical Guide to U.S. Transfer Pricing, which has become an invaluable resource for tax authorities and practitioners alike.

In 2012, he joined the IRS as the senior adviser for special projects in the Large Business and International Division's transfer pricing practice. His focus remained how to minimize conflicting claims of taxation and how to help taxpayers resolve conflicting claims as efficiently as possible.

Cole's leadership both within and out of government, Birnkrant said, “was key to development of procedures that allow businesses to function in the global world economy without being strangled by conflicting claims of taxation.”


Fred Murray of Grant Thornton noted that Cole was involved in negotiating the 1971 income tax treaty with Japan—only the second such treaty. (The first was negotiated in 1955.) He also was part of the force behind arbitration in more recent treaties, Murray said.

Steve Nauheim of PricewaterhouseCoopers, who was in the IRS's Office of Chief Counsel when Cole was with Treasury, credited him with developing the original revenue procedure on competent authority cases—Rev. Proc. 70-18, 1970-2 C.B. 493. According to Nauheim, “the basics of the competent authority procedure have not fundamentally changed from their origins with Bob.”

Murray and others also remembered Cole as an advocate for transparency in the competent authority process.

“To the extent we have more transparency around competent authority negotiations, much of that can be attributed to his patient prodding,” Murray said.

Birnkrant said Cole fought to keep the taxpayer informed during the bilateral negotiations in which it was a stakeholder. “He thought it was inefficient—and ridiculous—for the taxpayer not to know what information was being exchanged by the competent authorities,” he said.

James Croker, who worked with Cole at Cole, Corette & Abrutyn and at Alston & Bird until he left for the government last year, remembered that in 1982 “he had two huge competent authority cases that involved 10 to 15 countries each.” Cole, Croker said, “felt with good reason that the process could move better and more quickly if he was involved, and found ways to communicate with the competent authorities to help move his clients' cases forward.”

Return to Government

Nauheim found it fitting that Cole returned to the government at the close of his career.

“He played such a critical role in the formulation of transfer pricing policy in his time as International Tax Counsel that advising the IRS was like coming full circle,” he said.

According to Maruca, Cole brought mentoring in his role at the IRS.

“When they found out he was coming, people sought him out,” he said.

Cole also had high standards.

“He would ask, ‘What are my assignments?' ” Maruca recalled. “Then, four or five days later, he would say, ‘What happened to that? How come we're not getting that done?' ”

Maruca, like other former colleagues, recognized Cole's desire to improve the field he worked in.

“He wanted the system to work well,” Marua said. “His view was, we're all stakeholders.”


Molly Moses, Managing Editor, Transfer Pricing Report