Tax Break, or Kickback? Energy Benefit Becomes a Lightning Rod

In a statement, Alliantgroup said: “We are disappointed that the University of Texas System and University of Houston System have been led into a frivolous lawsuit against Alliantgroup and our client.”

The firm also noted that members of Congress and other government agencies had said 179D “was not intended to provide kickbacks to government entities who do not pay taxes in exchange for a tax-deduction allocation letter.”

Alliantgroup boasts an impressive roster of advisory experts to back up its interpretation, like Mark W. Everson, a former commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service, and Dean Zerbe, who worked on the Senate Finance Committee. Former I.R.S. managers, state governors, representatives and administration officials also sit on its strategic advisory board, including Tom Ridge, a former governor of Pennsylvania and secretary of homeland security, and Rick A. Lazio, a former New York congressman. In March, Mr. Lazio testified at a congressional hearing that the 179D deduction should be expanded to nonprofits and Indian tribes and made permanent.

Senator Benjamin L. Cardin, Democrat of Maryland, raised the issue of kickbacks, too, in 2016 when the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development asked for compensation in exchange for transferring its energy deductions from a completed project.

A spokeswoman for Mr. Cardin said the senator’s objection referred solely to public agencies demanding a fee for administering the confirmation letter, and not to “using 179D writ large as a way to negotiate a project’s cost.”

Other schools have also taken issue with applications overseen by Alliantgroup. The University of Connecticut discovered that the firm had solicited a 179D transfer from unauthorized employees on behalf of different clients for the same project.

“I was dismayed,” said Scott A. Jordan, the University of Connecticut’s chief financial officer. “There seemed to be a bounty sort of system where companies like Alliant were coming in and pressing owners to sign off on behalf of clients.” The incident, he said, prompted the university to devise a formal policy on how to handle the incentive.