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Attacks on IRS and its employees are all too common

Smoke billows from a seven-story building where offices of the IRS are located in Austin, Tex., after a small private plane crashed into it.
Smoke billows from a seven-story building where offices of the IRS are located in Austin, Tex., after a small private plane crashed into it. (Alberto Martinez/associated Press)
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By Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 19, 2010

Attacks on the Internal Revenue Service and its employees similar to Thursday's small plane crash in Texas are common, according to federal records and investigations.

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"There is a direct correlation between increased IRS enforcement efforts and the number of threats made against IRS employees," said J. Russell George, who heads the office of the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration. His office handled more than 1,200 threat and assault case referrals from the IRS and its employees between fiscal 2001 and 2008. The cases resulted in more than 167 indictments and at least 195 convictions, he said.

The nation's economic downturn and Americans' frustrations with their civic responsibilities have inspired many of the incidents, George said. The agency has stepped up enforcement efforts since Commissioner Douglas Shulman took over in 2008.

In a statement, Shulman expressed deep personal concern for IRS employees in Austin.

"While this appears to be an isolated incident, the safety of our employees is my highest priority. We will continue to do whatever is needed to ensure our employees are safe," Shulman said.

At least two people in Austin were rushed to a hospital with unspecified injuries, and one IRS employee was unaccounted for as of Thursday evening, local officials said.

Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, kept close tabs on developments. NTEU represents 85,000 IRS workers nationwide.

"I know that people across the country share my deep concern for these federal employees and the trauma they have experienced," Kelley said in a statement.

TIGTA has the authority to provide armed escorts upon request to IRS employees after receiving threats from irate taxpayers, and agents provide such protection at least once a week, George said. The increased use of armed escorts has allowed the agency to closely track threats against employees and refer cases to the Justice Department for prosecution.

A Florida man was sentenced to 30 years in federal prison last March after hiring an undercover FBI agent, posing as a hit man, to kill an IRS worker who was investigating his tax liabilities. Randy Nowak, 50, of Mulberry, Fla., also wanted the agent to burn down the IRS offices in Lakeland, Fla.

Ernest Milton Barnett, 50, of Birmingham, Ala., faces charges of ramming his Jeep Cherokee sport-utility vehicle into the agency's Birmingham offices in August 2008. Barnett and his wife had been on the phone with an IRS employee before the incident. He faces a maximum 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

In 2003, two men were found guilty of a 1997 arson-caused fire that destroyed IRS offices in Colorado Springs. The blaze destroyed the building and taxpayer files. Jack Dowell, 68, of Pensacola, Fla., and James Floyd Cleaver, 54, of Colorado Springs, were sentenced to at least 30 years in federal prison and ordered to pay restitution totaling $2.2 million.


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