By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
It's hard to estimate the power of the press until it affects you, personally. Case in point: I met Mike Scranton 11 years ago, and he was introduced to me as "the guy who made barbecue pits." Since then, he has proved to be a half-fascinating, half-infuriating friend, although I always knew it would be really hard for most people to appreciate his varied talents. At his party Saturday night, after the art car parade, there was an overdressed couple there that had come from a law firm event at the Hyatt. They said they had sort of "crashed" the party. When I assured the woman that, yes, there really was not a bathroom in the warehouse, and then mentioned Mike's name, she said, "Oh my God, this is his warehouse? The guy that was on the cover
of the Houston Press?"
It would be difficult (nay, impossible) to thoroughly explain all the errors, disinformation and flawed analyses contained in Steve McVicker's article in the April 16 issue of the Houston Press entitled "Tales from the IRS." The effort, though, must be made.
Interestingly, I have great respect for Mr. McVicker's past writings. He's generally insightful and educational. This story, though, is a sad example of how even an intelligent neutral observer can be misled when he hears only one side of the story.
I'm gratified that Mr. McVicker chose not to regurgitate Jennifer Long's oft-quoted, entirely unprovable and patently false allegation that she knows of at least five folks who have committed suicide because of the IRS. Unfortunately, the interview as presented still paints a picture of an agency motivated by simple meanness. Nothing could be further from the truth.
For years, critics charged that the IRS wasn't "run like a business"; wasn't keeping an eye on the bottom line. Some years ago, the service attempted to address these concerns by devoting resources to audits that could produce more assessments more efficiently. One type of tax return with which this can be accomplished is the tax return of a non-filer. Non-filers are usually less affluent, don't bring a posse of high-priced help to the table and can be quickly and accurately audited with little danger of protracted appeals. The result is more tax assessed for less expenditure of resources. The will of the people, as has been expressed through direct congressional mandates to increase the bottom line, is satisfied.
Ms. Long's aversion to this type of work isn't unusual within the service. It does tend to look and feel like "picking on the little guy." But it seems Ms. Long views her job as, ideally, being some sort of crusader for financial justice, attacking the big-dollar, big-income tax cheats and letting the little people go. It's her right to feel that way, but it's not her job. Congress requires that the service report how much revenue is brought in, not how much justice is dispensed. If she can't accept that, she should seek employment elsewhere.
Ms. Long does, however, stumble on an important truth when she talks about racial discrimination within the service. One easy way for managers in the service to boost their job ratings and bonuses is to give a concrete demonstration of their commitment to "diversity." The easiest way to do that is to promote minorities, whether they are qualified or not. The deleterious effects of this situation on morale need not be presented here. Anyone who's kept their ears open during the affirmative action debates of recent years knows how divisive this issue can be. I congratulate Mr. McVicker for highlighting one of the few areas of concern where Ms. Long has hit the nail on the head. I suppose even a blind hog finds an occasional acorn.
As for the case of Mr. Johnson, the article missed the essential mechanism whereby the service failed to live up to its commitment to him. When Mr. Johnson was shown in a court of law to be a tax cheat, the service publicity mechanism went into play because that's normal procedure. It would have been nice if the Justice Department attorneys handling the case had made sure that their clients, the IRS, were fully briefed on the unusual nondisclosure deal that had been struck. That didn't happen. In other words, no matter how comforted it may make Mr. Johnson feel to believe that the IRS persecuted him, the simple fact is that the world found out he was a tax cheat because of a mistake, not because of any malicious intent on the part of the IRS.
In the case of Deputy Phillips, Mr. McVicker quotes an IRS spokesman as declining to comment on the odds that nine out of 38 witnesses in a federal trial would be randomly audited, as if random selection were the only method by which tax returns are selected for audit. Such is not the case. There are people within the service whose job is to decide if a return is audit-worthy. Returns land on their desks in a variety of ways. Some get there by random selection, some through sophisticated computer modeling and others through a variety of referrals from both inside and outside the service. (This last method is how returns get audited based on the information from informants, for example.) If, as was apparently believed at the time, Mr. Phillips had been involved in some sort of wrongdoing, it is only reasonable to expect that the returns of his associates might have been under scrutiny. In fact, I can imagine that if the service didn't pay attention to the associates of people under prosecution, it wouldn't be long before some writer penned a fine expose on the way the service "let slide a prime opportunity to investigate a suspected group of tax cheats," or some such nonsense.