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Tales From the Haunted Accountants

By John Kelly
Friday, April 15, 2005; Page C09

Do not be afraid of those tense, sleep-deprived people you've seen on the street recently -- scurrying to and from work at odd hours or nipping out for a quick sandwich, their eyes blinking in the sunshine.

They are tax accountants, and they will not hurt you.

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Yes, they are crazed. You would be, too, if you were working 15-hour days for weeks on end and going virtually nonstop in the run-up to today, April 15, the accountants' Super Bowl.

Crazed but also strangely energized. They get a bit punchy, but it's fun: sleeping in their clothes at their desks, munching on cold pizza, downing Red Bull in an attempt to keep their calculator fingers working. Once a year, Washington's tax crowd gets to behave like college students pulling all-nighters. Post offices open until midnight tonight will have something approaching a party atmosphere.

This is not a good time to talk with these accountants. Their families haven't seen them for weeks. Journalists' calls are met with the stone wall of protective secretaries.

But we did get through to a few accountants who shared with us some of their more memorable tax-time experiences.

"Like somebody who wants to deduct the cost of growing funny-looking plants?" asked Art Auerbach of Goodman & Co. in Tysons Corner. "That actually happened. They were growing some, shall we say, less-than-legal flora. They were trying to deduct it, but it didn't get by me. I played goalie on that one."

As Art pointed out, you can't deduct the costs of running an illegal business. And it's safe to say these guys probably didn't declare the income from their, uh, product.

Another time, Art had a call from someone who had saved all his losing lottery tickets since 1988. When he finally won the lottery, he wanted to deduct all the money he'd spend on losing tickets against his winnings.

"But of course you can't do that," Art said. "That falls in the 'nice try' category."

David Bradsher of the Bay Business Group in Washington said someone once tried to deduct as a medical expense "behavioral therapy" for a dog.

"But it was really doggie obedience school for their pet doberman," David said.

For the record, pet expenses may not be deducted. "You always hear tales of people trying to list their pets as a dependent," said David. "I've never had that happen to me personally, but I'm sure it's happened."

Chris Hopkinson of Gaithersburg's Frontier Tax & Accounting once dealt with someone who tried to claim his roommate as a dependent.

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