Sunday, May 16, 2004

A Tax Dodger Meets the Man

By Nancy McKeon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 7, 2004; Page F01

Some people define themselves by their job, some by their hobbies, yet others by their family relationships. Josh Kornbluth and Richard Yancey are two very different men who can be defined, at least in part, by the Internal Revenue code.

Kornbluth is a West Coast writer/performer who, in his twenties, worked office jobs to pay the rent. At some point he dropped out of The System and, even though he temped for a tax attorney, didn't file tax returns for seven years.

Yancey spent those same years in Florida, and he too bounced around from job to job, trying to be a writer. He wound up -- until four months ago -- a revenue officer for the IRS, spending his days going after people like Kornbluth.

Tax dodger, meet tax collector.

Kornbluth was in Washington last week performing his monologue "Love and Taxes" at Arena Stage (through March 14). Yancey was in town promoting his new book, "Confessions of a Tax Collector" (HarperCollins). Here, in this edited transcript, they interview each other.

Kornbluth: Your book is really a story about becoming a grown-up.

Yancey: Yeah, a coming-of-age story. The IRS just happens to be where I come of age.

Kornbluth: I picked up on that right away because, in my show, we're actually telling a very similar story. Although we are, like, point-counterpoint, as we're being set up here. But as you describe yourself, you're pretty much a slacker. [Grins]

Yancey: Oh, yeah. I was a ne'er-do-well in the classic sense. If there was something to fail at, I could achieve that failure. By the time I got into the Service I was 28 and I didn't know what I was doing with my life. I didn't have a life, I didn't know what I was doing.

Kornbluth: You were the antithesis of what you were about to become. It's as if the car thief became the repo man.

So what was the job like?

Yancey: It was a lot of things. In some ways it was a terrific job. We had fun, especially in the early '90s before Congress ruined everything and put all these inhibitions on the IRS. [Laughter] We had a blast, and every day was different.

Yancey tells of a married couple -- apparently tax protesters -- who owed about $20,000 after failing to file for three years. They had no real estate in their names. Their 1989 truck had a large note on it. Only a 1968 Chevrolet Chevette had no lien against it. No way was Yancey going to get the government's $20,000 by seizing that.

Yancey: That car's basically a little box on wheels. But I thought, I gotta close the case, so I'll go out and get the Chevette. I knew where he worked, I knew he probably drove his car to work, and so I go there and was cruising his parking lot, three or four times. I can't find a red Chevette anywhere. Then I stop and I see this For Sale sign on a car. And it's a cherry-red '68 Corvette, not Chevette. It's a classic, in mint condition, worth back then, what, $70,000? $80,000? Within 10 minutes I had a tow truck there. The guy comes running out of his office, and the tow truck driver says, "If he's got a gun, you're my human shield. Stand there!" Anyway, we hooked it up, we took it in. I didn't get to sell it, though -- the guy came up with the money.

It kind of illustrates the real lesson I learned in the IRS.

Kornbluth: Which is?

Yancey: Which is how to control and manipulate people, which really didn't have anything to do with the power of the federal law that I had behind me. It had to do with learning how to push people's buttons. What I learned was, First you find what they love and then you take it. If you can't find what they love, find what they fear and exploit it.

Kornbluth: In your book, the [IRS interviewer] asks you, Why do people pay their taxes? You give the "right" answer, which is due to their patriotic duty. And he says, No, it's fear. Is that where it comes down?

Yancey: That's my experience. I can't tell you how many people, when I knocked on their door, said, "Are you here to arrest me?" And when everything was done, they would say, "I can't believe a person from the IRS is, like, a human being."

But when you were going through this ordeal, how were the IRS people in general? Were they the typical, you know, pocket protectors?

Kornbluth: I didn't actually -- what I did was, I called. First, I avoided.

Yancey: That's common.

Kornbluth: . At first I was working almost entirely at jobs that had withholding tax. I filed, and I got refunds, but then someone told me I was supposed to itemize, because I was also writing freelance. And I couldn't: I looked around and everything would look like a deduction [laughter] and I didn't know how to deal with it. Not only that, but I couldn't find things -- under socks, or KFC boxes.

Yancey: That sounds just like me. Oh, yeah, I'm a terrible organizer. I can't keep track of papers -- no, I was good at work. When I had to be, I was.

Kornbluth: Yeah, I recognized a fellow spirit. And I was around the age that you're talking about too -- I was in my twenties then. So anyway, I just fell out of the system. I had an appointment with a tax person, a preparer, and on April 15 I was scrambling and then I just overloaded and I got really sleepy --

Yancey: Sleepy?

Kornbluth: Yeah, sleepy. And I needed to lie down on my receipts, and when I woke up it was the 16th. Just like that. And I just couldn't -- it was late -- and then, nothing happened.

Yancey: Nothing happened?

Kornbluth: Nothing happened. And so I continued to let nothing happen for seven years, until I was a secretary for a great tax attorney. And I was doing a show about, in part, how I hadn't done my taxes for seven years, and he said, "That was a very funny joke, Josh," and I said, "Well, it wasn't a joke," and he flipped out and sent me to a tax lawyer. And that's why I started dealing with it and going inside the system.

I wasn't trying to get away with anything. The tax lawyer said that if I had filed I would've gotten refunds. But then I made a little money, for me a lot of money, $50,000 over two years 'cause I had movie options for my monologues. And then, instead of another refund I owed $27,000. So, at first I just wasn't thinking about it. Then I was thinking about it, it was on my mind all the time. I had been filing for years and then I stopped. So I eventually called the IRS, and they were really nice. I was on hold a lot, but I will say that, the music on hold, I found very relaxing.

Yancey: [Laughing] Really?

Kornbluth: But as I put in my Social Security number, my heart was pounding and I thought, "What is that person going to say, like, 'You're going to jail' ?" But at the same time, I really had the inkling -- and I'd be curious from your end -- the inkling of, I owe this. [Laughter]

Was it your experience, or did you have any connection with whether the money you were being sent to collect was a fair assessment of these people?

Yancey: I never got into that unless they brought it up.

Kornbluth: That wasn't your job, right? Your job is like, "Rick, go, get that money."

Yancey: No one ever called me -- well, some CPAs would call me by my first name, but most people wouldn't. And I didn't even use my real name.

Kornbluth: Oh, that's right! So, that's something I wondered -- so the woman I talked to on the phone was named Mrs. Williams --

Yancey: [to laughter] Yeah, right!

Kornbluth: I suspected that maybe it wasn't. So I was right about that?

Yancey: Well, on my level they don't release "this percentage of employees are using pseudonyms," but I made a personal choice and we're allowed to do it. I mean, I worked with people like you, but I worked with some real bad guys. There are those who openly flouted the system, who were, like, I know I owe this money and I don't care, I'm just not going to pay you. And plus questioning the legitimacy of the tax laws, just in general --

Kornbluth: Which, from my reading, is stuff that's thrown out whenever it gets to court, right?

Yancey: Yeah, but that doesn't stop some people --

Kornbluth: Well, there's the Flat Earth Society people too.

Yancey addresses some of the people he dealt with in his career, many of whom seemed never to have had anything and yet wound up owing the IRS thousands of dollars.

Yancey: Most of it came about through self-employment, where people are basically living beyond their means, they're not thinking when they get a check that part of the money belongs to the government.

One of the nice things about being a wage slave is that your employer is going to pay half of your Social Security tax. When you're self-employed, like you and I are, you're responsible for the whole thing.

Kornbluth: Yeah, independent contractors, the self-employed, need to put the money aside. People like us, who are not by nature responsible, not dedicated to details, need to learn that. That's what I did. I didn't attend to it, I didn't put the money aside, and then I owed it, and then it got bigger and bigger. But that's not the IRS's fault.

But the tax attorney was great. And I picked up a lot of the language, like the shotgun provision and the classical corporation ruling and the reverse double dummy maneuver.

Yancey: What's that?

Kornbluth: It had something to do with, you set up these sort of companies that are sort of -- well, I'm not the person to explain it. Nonetheless, it's a maneuver, it's legal, or apparently, and it's a great name I like to use in my show.

Yancey: I guess a lot of professions are like that. You have your own language, your own culture. And I get this pang [about the IRS] that I'm going to miss it. Sometimes, I feel, I need to be in the know.

Sandy [his wife] is still in the Service, so she can talk about some of these things. I mean, she can't give names, but for instance, she's training five new people and that helped me bring up the feelings that I had when I was in training that I talk about in the book, these feelings of being overwhelmed and learning a whole new language. I mean, you're pulling your hair out thinking, "I'm never gonna get this," but then you have an epiphany, something clicked at one point.

And all of a sudden you find yourself rattling off sections of the [tax] code. And, to get back to language for a second, in the IRS we don't call taxes taxes. They're not taxes, they're modules.

Kornbluth: So you're not really dealing with tax evaders. You deal with module evaders.

Yancey: Right, module dodgers.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company

A Tax Dodger Meets the Man (

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