Longform

Tales From the IRS

The Whistle Blower
If there was anyone who respected the Internal Revenue Service, it was Jennifer Long.

She was born and raised in Austin, where her parents had worked all their professional lives as auditors at the IRS regional headquarters. While Long was enrolled at the University of Texas, she also worked at the headquarters herself.

And in 1984, Long, an accountant, found herself working as an auditor for the agency's Houston office. And over time, she lost all respect for the IRS.

Last fall, first on network TV and then before Congress, Long publicly charged that the IRS is a misguided, incompetent, mean-spirited agency controlled by unqualified nitwits. She was speaking, she said, from firsthand experience.

Seven months later, she's still working at the IRS. And if anything, she thinks even less of it now.

In the oil boom years of the '70s and early '80s, the IRS's Houston office grew rapidly; according to Long, it was soon bringing in more money than most entire districts. Lots of Houstonians were making lots of money, and they used earned income credits and tax shelters to hang onto it. IRS revenue agents took hard looks at those shelters, and their work frequently resulted in large adjustments in favor of the government. Long felt good about her work.

But that all changed in 1988 -- the result of low oil prices and Congress's elimination of tax shelters. "After the crash, a lot of people couldn't pay," says Long. "They didn't have anything, so we couldn't collect."

Long noticed that she was no longer auditing mostly the rich. In the past, she'd focused on people who hired expensive accounting firms and high-priced tax attorneys. But by the mid-'90s, her caseload was dominated by non-filers -- many of them downright poor.

"I have never worked cases like I have worked in the last two or three years," she says. "Some of these people couldn't even afford air conditioning. I don't see the point of auditing people like that."

She was also troubled by the agency mindset that all taxpayers are criminals. "I just don't buy into that," she says. "And I'm not saying that I haven't had fraudulent taxpayers. I have. But not everybody is a crook."

At first, she says, she tried to work within the system, making her qualms clear to her superiors. But when she complained, she says, she became a target. After she wrote letters detailing her concerns, she found herself being investigated.

Her breaking point came in November 1996, one day before she was scheduled to leave on a month-long vacation in Europe. She worked out of her home and, before the trip, planned to drop off at the office several case files. Suffering a skin rash, she called in sick that morning, but said she'd deliver the files after seeing a doctor.

But before she could leave for her appointment, several IRS agents appeared at her front door, and a West University Place police officer blocked her driveway. The agents demanded that she turn over all her files immediately.

Long refused to let them into her house; they didn't have a warrant, and she didn't want them rifling through her personal possessions. Besides, she says, she was worried about what would happen to the files if she surrendered them. She had no idea what the agents would do with the confidential documents in them. "I have an obligation to protect taxpayers' information," she explains, "and this situation was totally out of control."

After the agents and the cop finally left, Long drove downtown to her union office, where she copied all her documents. She then arranged to turn over the documents, in the presence of a union representative, to an IRS agent. Then she left for Europe, worried that the agency would break into her house, and wondering how she'd be greeted on her return.

"When I came back, they didn't say a word," says Long. "They acted like nothing had happened. But I had not forgotten."

She wrote a letter to then-IRS commissioner Margaret Richardson. Eight days later, she received a disciplinary letter that accused of her causing dissension and discord in the workplace. The date of the alleged discord was the day the agents had come to her home -- a day Long was never even in the office.

Undeterred, in February 1997, she sent a letter to Houston Congressman Bill Archer, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and a longtime critic of the IRS. She also contacted Senator William Roth, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. She didn't hear anything back until June.

"They had received more than 800 letters from IRS employees around the country," says Long, "and asked me if I was interested in testifying before Congress." She was.

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Steve McVicker