Are Koskinen's days as IRS commissioner numbered?

The efficacy of the Internal Revenue Service's information security and data stewardship practices has of late been questioned by many, including this author.  Even members of Congress are susceptible to identity theft in connection with their tax returns.

On 14 April 2016, the Subcommittee on Research and Technology of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology held a hearing titled "Research and Technology Subcommittee Hearing - Can the IRS Protect Taxpayers’ Personal Information?"  The first (and perhaps the star) witness at that hearing was John Koskinen, the commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service.  That the hearing occurred within a week of the due date for tax returns is no coincidence; the IRS and Congress alike have long exploited the public relations value of tax filing season.

The next day, Subcommittee Chair Barbara Comstock (R-Va.) issued a press release calling for Koskinen to resign.  There obviously was an element of political grandstanding on the part of Ms. Comstock, who, like all other members of the House of Representatives, must face re-election in just a few months.  Indeed, there is a House Resolution afoot to impeach Koskinen.

One possible narrative: Congresswoman Comstock's call for Commissioner Koskinen's head smacks of excessive political grandstanding.  Unpopular as Mr. Koskinen must be as the nation's chief tax collector, it is not exceedingly difficult to empathize with him as a victim who has been placed into a position in which, on account of the very tax laws the IRS must administer, neither he nor anyone else can ever succeed.

I, for one, reject such a narrative – not because the position of IRS commissioner is one in which success is possible, but rather because, untenable as the commissionership may be, Koskinen has ignored signs and warnings regarding identity theft that should have been clear.

In her 2016 Fiscal Objectives Report to Congress, National Taxpayer Advocate Nina Olson stated that "The IRS Should Provide Victims of Identity Theft with a True Single Point of Contact to Help Them Resolve Their Account Problems and Obtain Their Refunds."

In her 15 April 2016 testimony before the Government Operations Subcommittee of the House Oversight Committee, Ms. Olson stated:

For identity theft cases involving more than one tax issue or more than one tax year, assign a single employee within the Identity Theft Victim Assistance unit to work with the identity theft victim until all related issues are fully resolved. The taxpayer should be given the opportunity to speak directly with that employee whenever possible, but if the employee is not available, the taxpayer should be given the option of leaving a message for the employee or speaking with another available assistor.

The single IRS point of contact is not a brand new concept in Ms. Olson's brain.  In the Executive Summary of her 2015 Annual Report to Congress (released in January of 2016), Ms. Olson states that "the IRS still does not assign a sole IRS contact person to interact with IDT victims with multiple tax issues, it does not track IDT cycle time in a way that accurately represents the taxpayer’s experience, and it continues to limit the availability of Identity Protection Personal Identification Numbers (IP PINs) to a small segment of the population" (emphasis supplied).

The single point of contact meme was clearly spelled out in Ms. Olson's 2013 Annual Report, released in January 2014, approximately a month after Koskinen's confirmation by the Senate and, even before Koskinen's name was bandied about for the commissioner's chair, in her 2012 testimony before the House Oversight Subcommittee on Government Organization, Efficiency, and Financial Management.  And it had been aspired to by IRS commissioner Douglas Shulman in his own congressional testimony in 2008, shortly after he began his service.

Matters have come to the point where verbatim "single point of contact" language is now written in current bills in both the House and the Senate.

It is unfortunate that the Congress is now compelled to legislate what should be a natural and logical and well-reasoned internal rulemaking exercise by the IRS.

Kenneth H. Ryesky is a lawyer who has taught business law and taxation at Queens College CUNY.  He formerly served as an attorney for the IRS.

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