The commissioner of internal revenue has ordered his agency to delay collecting back taxes from Hurricane Katrina victims until after the Nov. 7 elections and the holiday season, saying he did so in part to avoid negative publicity.
The commissioner, Mark W. Everson, who has close ties to the White House, said in an interview that postponing collections until after the midterm elections, along with postponing notices to people who failed to file tax returns, was a routine effort to avoid casting the Internal Revenue Service in a bad light.
“We are very sensitive to political perceptions,” Mr. Everson said Wednesday, adding that he regularly discussed with his senior staff members when to take actions and make announcements in light of whether they would annoy a powerful member of Congress or get lost in the flow of news.
The tax agency has broad discretion to change filing deadlines in the case of disasters and has traditionally eased off tax collections before the December holidays.
But four former I.R.S. commissioners, who served under presidents of both parties, said that doing so because of an election was improper and indefensible.
Mr. Everson issued the order to delay enforcement in an Oct. 10 conference call with some of the career civil servants working on tax enforcement in the areas that were devastated by the 2005 hurricane.
“We just spoke with commissioner on the enforcement issue in the gulf,” wrote Beth Tucker, the I.R.S. executive in charge of dealing with Hurricane Katrina victims, in an e-mail message to her team obtained by The New York Times. “He prefers that we do not resume any enforcement actions until after Dec. 31 due to the upcoming elections, holiday season, etc.”
Former Commissioner Jerome Kurtz, who served under President Jimmy Carter, responded, “Never, never, never,” when asked if he would have considered delaying broad-based enforcement actions like sending notices because of any election, national or local. “Oh my God, that is unthinkable,” Mr. Kurtz said.
On the other hand, Mark E. Matthews, the I.R.S. deputy director of services and enforcement, who participated in the conference call with Mr. Everson, said that “the reference to elections was in a litany of things we were running through here” and that “I did not read it as being politicized.” Mr. Matthews noted that he is a Democrat who worked in the Clinton administration. [Big whoop. So's Rahm Emanuel.]
Mr. Everson was deputy director of the White House budget office in January 2003 when he was nominated by President Bush to be I.R.S. commissioner. His wife, Nanette, was until February the chief ethics lawyer in the Bush White House. [Well, that explains a lot...] There is no indication that anyone in the White House was aware of the order to delay the tax collections.
Charles O. Rossotti, the commissioner under President Bill Clinton and President Bush, said, “That’s not appropriate.” Mr. Rossotti added that “given the culture of the Treasury and the I.R.S., I just can’t imagine anyone would even bring anything like that up.” [Dude, have you been living in a cave for the last six years?]
Alex P. Trostorff, a tax partner at the New Orleans law firm Jones, Walker, Waechter, Poitevent, Carrère & Denègre, said that despite the filing extension offered by the I.R.S., the agency continued to send overdue notices to many people in New Orleans.
“A lot of people are upset,” Mr. Trostorff said.
So, let me see if I understand the rationale here. The IRS wants to avoid bad press and ill will by easing up on enforcement actions during the holiday season, which now includes... Election Day? I just can't imagine anyone saying, "What kind of heartless bastards would send a collection notice on Election Day?" Well, anyone outside the Republican Party, that is...