After your cheatin' heart come the taxpayer blues


It is estimated that every year Americans cheat the government out of as much as $400 billion in federal income taxes.

This works out to about $1,600 for every man, woman and child in America. And what I want to know is this:

Where is my $1,600?

I have never been able to finagle that much. Even the year I deducted my goldfish as a dependent (he was like a son to me), it did not add up to that much dough.

Which can only mean that some people are thieving more than their fair share.

This is one reason I had high hopes for Jerry Brown's flat tax proposal. It seemed to offer the promise of making tax filing so simple that we could all cheat on a level playing field.

The only downside I could see was that it might mean the end of Domenic J. LaPonzina.

LaPonzina, a man for whom the word "swellegant" seems to have been invented, is the IRS public affairs officer for the Baltimore District, which includes all of Maryland and the District of Columbia.

And unless you have been on submarine duty under the polar icecap, you have caught the dapper Mr. LaPonzina on TV or radio recently.

That's because in the weeks preceding April 15, he is inescapable. (On April 16, I once joked, he goes into a cryogenic vault, where he is kept fresh-frozen until he is needed again the next year.)

I recently managed to corral LaPonzina ("I have to get to WBAL!" he kept telling me) and ask him whether Brown's flat tax would put him out of business.

"Oh, of course it wouldn't put us out of business," he said. "There will always be work for IRS representatives as well as accountants and CPAs. No matter what the tax system, taxpayers will always need guidance, education and assistance."

As well as someone to throw them in the clink. LaPonzina didn't mention that, though when it comes time for you to get thrown in the clink, he is usually there.

And that is where I first met him: at the home of Jeffrey and Karol Levitt on the day eight IRS agents with two Mayflower moving vans showed up and proceeded to cart away all the Levitts' worldly goods merely because they had failed to pay some $1.6 million in income taxes.

But wait. How do we know the Levitts really owed that much, considering you can go to 20 different tax accountants and get 20 different answers to what you owe on your tax return?

"Any time you have a major tax law change, such as the Tax Reform Act of 1986, you're bound to have a learning curve," LaPonzina said. "But once the code settles in, you'll find accuracy dramatically increases.

"And how many other professions have to relearn their craft as often as accounting professionals and the IRS do? Every time Congress passes a new law, we must learn things all over again. They don't change the AP Stylebook every year in your profession, do they?"

The AP Stylebook?

"Forget it," he said.

What are my chances of cheating and getting away with it? I asked. I'm only talking about the $1,600 in theft I have coming as an American citizen.

LaPonzina almost chuckled. He explained how enormous computers now make it possible for the IRS to check income records against more than 90 percent of all tax returns.

So where does that $400 billion in tax cheating come from? I asked.

"We are talking about huge numbers when we talk about the drug trade as well as illegal gambling in this country," LaPonzina said.

So you have to pay taxes on illegal activities?

"Of course," he said. "Al Capone wasn't sent to prison for bootlegging or murder. He was sent to prison for tax evasion."

Which certainly made me think twice about taking my parakeet as a dependent this year.

"We have the best financial investigators in the world," LaPonzina said. "And sooner or later, the odds are you are going to be getting a 'Dear Taxpayer' letter from us if you cheat."

And I got the impression that the 'Dear Taxpayer' letter was only a few steps away from the Mayflower vans.

One last question, I said. What happens to you after April 15?

"I go back into my cryogenic vault," LaPonzina said.

And you thought IRS agents didn't have a sense of humor.

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