On April 13, I referred to an Internal Revenue Service memo that went out under the name of collection division chief Robert Starkey as "written" by him. The IRS informs me that the memo issued in his name was written by subordinates and was in fact repudiated by Starkey.
A small businessman in Portland, Maine, was stunned last June when without any warning the Internal Revenue Service seized $9,000 from his bank account.
The businessman, Richard Dyke, had been the victim of an embezzlement which, in turn, had caused a $20,000 tax delinquency. He had received permission from IRS officials to pay off the debt in monthly installments of $2,000.
He had kept up payments for several months. Then suddenly, the IRS grabbed $9,000 to pay off the balance of the bill.
In some ways, Dyke may have been luckier than Maurice Bishop, a Michigan businessman who had also been victimized by an embezzler and wound owing the federal government $400,000 to assure payment of the delinquency.
Bishop paid off $20,000 of the tax debt in cash; the IRS refused to release any of the lien. Even after the balance was paid early last july, the tax bloodhounds took their time getting the lien erased from court records, tying up Bishop's $400,000 worth of property for several months.
Incredibly, both the seizure of Dyke's money and the crippling lien against Bishop's property were legal under IRS regulations and the enormous discretionary authority Congress has given the tax masters.
Like the Mamelukes of ancient Egypt -- the class of bureaucratic slaves who eventually came to control their royal masters -- IRS officials have become rulers of the American public they are supposed to serve. Though most of them exercise their power reasonably and reponsibly, the potential for capricious enforcement becomes a temptation that some revenue officers can't resist.
It's arguable that Ronald Reagan's most effective campaign pledge was his promise to "get the government off our backs." And it's also arguable that many businessmen and ordinary taxpayers consider the petty despots of the IRS the government representatives they'd most like to get out from under. In the sacred cause of extracting every dollar due Uncle Sam from the taxpayers, the revenue officers often come down like the wolf on the fold.
Why is this? One reason seems to be the attitude drilled into IRS employes. Susan Long, a Princeton visiting fellow who has studied IRS training, said, "They're taught that 'most people cheat' and 'you're hated,' which puts you on the defensive from the start."
This, of course, is nonsense. Most people don't cheat -- the income tax system is a marvel of voluntary, honest "self-incrimination." And it's the frightened taxpayer, bewildered by IRS regulations and intimidated by the auditor's accusatory demeanor, who is on the defensive in most situations.
But the paranoid mentality of "them against us" is firmly fixed in IRS officials.
An added factor appears to be that instructions from Washington are garbled in transit to field offices or are misinterpreted by ambitious regional officials fearful of seeming less dedicted than their colleagues in other regions.
Property seizures aginst delinquent taxpayers offer a case in point: Such seizures are supposed to be a last resort against hard-core tax evaders. But in early 1979, when Robert Starkey became head of the IRS collection division, the number of seizures increased dramatically, from 5,723 in 1979 to 9,423 last year.
Starkey told my reporters Tony Capaccio and Deborah Latish that "we were finding in districts cases where seizures were appropriate but not being made . . . [so] we began to focus attention on this fact with the districts." m
Starkey added: "unfortunately, the message that got through in some situations was preceived as quota by some group managers. Obviously, this message was wrong and not national policy."