A Hound's-Tooth IRS

IT'S not surprising that an agency of government with 120,000 employees handling $1 trillion a year should make some mistakes and even encounter an ethical problem now and then. But it's very troubling, nonetheless, to hear allegations of corruption within the Internal Revenue Service. Among the charges made by congressional investigators are: unauthorized release of confidential tax data, accepting gratuities from those trying to avoid taxes, associating with organized-crime figures, private use of government resources, nepotism, and - perhaps most serious of all - harassing IRS employees who tried to blow the whistle on such wrongdoing.

Part of the problem is that the IRS's own investigators are too close to senior managers, frequently exchanging jobs. That's a most dangerous revolving door.

Rep. Doug Barnard, who heads the subcommittee that conducted the investigation, says the IRS is driven by concern that publicly exposing wrongdoing by senior managers ``will tarnish the agency's public image and make its tax-enforcement responsibilities more difficult.''

It's true that the IRS must maintain a good public image if its system of voluntary compliance is to work. But does overlooking or covering up misconduct help its reputation and encourage taxpayer cooperation?

To be sure, all but a handful of agency employees are honest civil servants who do their best to see that federal tax law is fairly enforced and revenues are collected in timely fashion. (In the interest of full disclosure, it should be noted that a taxpayer who writes for this page is still waiting for his 1988 refund.)

But if the problem is as widespread as Representative Barnard and his sleuths think (the head of an IRS whistleblowers' group says ``it's only the tip of the iceberg''), more than the current bad publicity is needed to ensure reform.

First, any charges of corruption should be fully prosecuted, either under the federal ethical code or criminal law. This would be a strong deterrent. And second, the IRS needs to have an independent inspector general. This is a minimum for making sure the tax collector is hound's-tooth clean.

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