Former National Taxpayer Advocate Concerned No Successor Has Been Appointed

By:
Chris Gaetano
Published Date:
Nov 7, 2019
Former Taxpayer Advocate Nina Olson

Nina E. Olson, who served as national taxpayer advocate from 2001 until she retired this past summer, said she was concerned that the Treasury Department has not yet named a formal successor to her post, observing that the IRS has been moving forward on matters without consulting her former office.

"When I walked out the door, there was a very short list. I was comfortable with every single person. They had been interviewed, met with the secretary—I don't know what's holding it up," she said. 

Speaking at the Nov. 7 Foundation for Accounting Education's Tax Planning for Individuals Conference, Olson said that while there is an acting taxpayer advocate, Bridget T. Roberts, whom she described as "wonderful," the IRS has been responding quite differently to her due to her status as simply "acting." 

As an example, she noted recent moves by the IRS regarding passport denial or even revocation. When she was the taxpayer advocate, Olson said, she had made arrangements with the IRS so that if taxpayers were working with her office on a significant tax debt, the government would not revoke their passports. She said she also made it a regular practice to immediately issue taxpayer assistance orders as soon as they came to the Office of the Taxpayer Advocate (the office even had a template for them), which would prevent the IRS from denying or revoking a passport. 

"We said if they come to the [Taxpayer Advocate Service] to work out this issue before they have been certified, why would you certify them [now]? They're in our house, working on this issue. Certification is for people who ignore the debt." 

Since she's left, however, she said that the IRS has announced that it will resume certifying such cases, reasoning that it can't treat taxpayers differently just because they have an open case with the Taxpayer Advocate's Office, which she called "nonsense." 

"We had a little relief, but now they've gone backwards," she said. "If I had been there, I would have been screaming bloody murder. But that is the problem with having an acting, but not a permanent, taxpayer advocate. So I'm very concerned." 

In the absence of a more permanent appointee, she said, it would appear her former office is focusing on field work, such as assisting people with issues concerning refund fraud. She said that even when she was working there, her office was "swamped" with cases of taxpayers getting their refunds frozen because the IRS thought they were fraudulent. During her time, she found that there was an 81 percent false positive rate on such freezes. 

She also talked about the challenges she experienced in allowing taxpayers and practitioners to communicate with both her own office and the IRS itself via email. She said the IRS had conducted a pilot project allowing people to communicate with her office via email and submit electronic documents. She said that only six taxpayers ever actually did so. 

"And part of it was, they said—and this is bizarre but we were taking literal notes—what they said was it was easier to fax. Who has faxes today? But people have apps on their phones that they can take a picture of something and fax it in," she said. 

Also contributing to the problem was what she said was the "clunkiness" of the system itself. First, users had to register an account, and said only one-third were even able to clear the necessary authentication. And even when they did get to make an account, she said the program had a very steep learning curve, compared with taking a picture and faxing it over, or even sending it  mail. 

"So we sort of said, 'When you get better software, we'll participate,' and put it out to everyone that the IRS needs a better program," she said. 

She feared that the IRS will respond similarly to many of the reforms outlined in the recent Taxpayers First Act. She said the changes it will create in the IRS will affect what it looks like going forward, "but my big fear is that the IRS will design this" along the lines of what's best for them, "and cherry pick who they talk to and convert it." 

This is why she urged her audience to send their comments on what they would like from the IRS not only to the service itself, but also to the congressional tax-writing committees "because they're the ones really overseeing the IRS." 

"They are the ones this matters greatly to," she said. "They really need to hear from you." 

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