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MORE REASONS TO HATE THE IRS

UNBRIDLED POWER
Inside the Secret Culture of the IRS
By Shelley L. Davis
HarperBusiness 284pp $25


Shelley Davis must get a kick out of her former employer's response to her new book, Unbridled Power. One of Davis' complaints is that the IRS uses ''taxpayer privacy'' as a catch-all shield against any oversight of its activities. So how does the IRS respond to, say, Davis' charge that autograph-seekers within the agency ripped the signatures off most of the tax returns filed by Presidents from Woodrow Wilson to George Bush? Sorry, an IRS spokesman told the press--any comment would constitute disclosure of taxpayer information. That rejoinder may be the best confirmation of her thesis that Davis could ask for.

Unbridled Power is a chronicle of the author's seven years as the first--and last--official historian at the Internal Revenue Service. Davis lodges many complaints against the tax agency: It illegally destroys records, harasses whistle-blowers, and pays ''hush money'' to problem employees.

At times, the IRS carries its privacy rules to absurd extremes. When Davis sought permission to provide records to an author researching a book on Chicago gangster Al Capone, agency attorneys vetoed the request--and told her she would be breaking the law if she even told anyone that the IRS put Scarface in prison for failing to file tax returns.

But the blanket claim to secrecy has wider implications, as congressional committees probing IRS mismanagement have discovered. The agency is under assault from Congress for such failures as wasting billions trying to modernize its computers. Meanwhile, a congressional commission is trying to figure out whether the agency can be saved or whether it must, as tax reformers charge, be ''pulled up by the roots'' and replaced.

Not surprisingly, Davis has become a heroine to the largely Republican anti-IRS crowd. A military historian hired as part of an executive's pet project to record IRS activities, Davis describes her mounting frustration with a bureaucratic culture that, she charges, is more interested in stamping out history than preserving it. Five days after former President Richard M. Nixon died, for example, she was tipped off to a plan to shred Nixon's and Vice-President Spiro T. Agnew's tax returns, perhaps the most controversial White House returns ever. After escalating run-ins with her bosses, Davis wound up subject to an internal investigation. The charges--that she violated IRS secrecy by tipping off a fellow historian to an early 1960s investigative operation--were easily disproved. But the investigation, which Davis saw as retaliation for her whistle-blowing, helped push her into quitting, something Davis insists was the probe's intended effect.

Tax protesters aren't likely to draw much steam from a charge that the IRS doesn't handle its records properly. (Two historical societies, however, have sued the IRS based on Davis' allegations.) Readers concerned with the more typical catalog of complaints about the IRS--its auditing, enforcement, and collection tactics, for example--won't find much more here than Davis' finely honed sense of outrage. Never mind: Every self-respecting IRS basher will have to have a copy on the bookshelf.

By MIKE MCNAMEE


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Updated June 15, 1997 by bwwebmaster
Copyright 1997, Bloomberg L.P.
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