Washington headquarters of the IRS

The IRS is perhaps the most despised and mocked of all federal agencies, and awarding performance bonuses to employees who owed back taxes doesn't help its image. (Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg / April 23, 2014)

Do Internal Revenue Service employees have a dress code? Maybe, maybe not. But when they look in the mirror, they must see themselves wearing a target.

The IRS is probably the most disliked of federal agencies. Any joke beginning “the Internal Revenue Service” is likely to get a nasty laugh, and almost any one of the 535 people on Capitol Hill would be eager to make his bones on some IRS slip-up. And a lot of them have.

So of course we’re all giving the eye-roll to the story that the IRS handed out about $1.1 million in bonuses and other valuable perks, like time off, to 1,100 rank-and-file workers who got in hot water with the agency, their employer, for not paying their own taxes.

It doesn’t take Jon Stewart’s skeptical eyebrows to make a story out of that.

How can this happen? Because the IRS contract with the National Treasury Employees Union specifies that being disciplined or investigated doesn’t prevent employees from getting a bonus or other performance-related awards, unless it would damage the agency’s integrity.

Now that this is public, how does it not damage the agency’s integrity? The IRS is all over the rest of us if we come up a day late or a dollar short on taxes, but it can give bonuses to its own employees if they do the same thing?

There’s always more to the story. Are these employees struggling to pay taxes because of some financial crisis, like medical bills? In which case their union or the IRS must have some mechanism to help them out. Or are they flat-out contumacious scofflaws?

Maybe it all works out in the end. Maybe those 1,100 people will use that bonus money to pay their unpaid taxes and penalties.

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Follow Patt Morrison on Twitter @pattmlatimes