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A civics lesson from the IRS

SACRAMENTO — John and Celeste Schleimer of Roseville, Calif., have been through six years of excruciating negotiations, examinations and hearings with the Internal Revenue Service over an old tax debt for a period in which Mr. Schleimer suffered a severe business downturn.

They don’t dispute the debt. They want to work out a reasonable payment plan. In particular, they don’t think Mrs. Schleimer should be held responsible for the tax debt of her husband for a period before they were married. Secondly, the couple would like some consideration given to the fact that Mr. Schleimer was forced into bankruptcy since the tax debt was incurred.

Not necessarily unique issues. In fact, thousands of Americans have been through similar experiences with the IRS.

But there is one thing different about this case — some unusual IRS restrictions on the Schleimer’s free speech rights as a condition to halt collection of the tax debt. Specifically, in March 1996, the Schleimers’ attorney, Michael S. Noble of Sacramento, was told by an attorney for the IRS that they expected his clients to cease communication with their elected representatives in Congress with regard to the case.

A letter from Noble to the Schleimers dated March 27, 1996, states that the IRS agreed to cease collection efforts against the couple for four months.

“In return, the letter states that the four-month period may be extended if the IRS believes you are cooperating with them,” Noble wrote. And how would that cooperation be measured?

“In my discussions with the IRS, they told me that they expected you to cease correspondence with your congressional leaders,” Noble wrote. “If you did not cease such correspondence, then they would not extend the stay on collection.”

The Schleimers honored that agreement for more than a year. But, now, because of what they see as a betrayal of the original agreement by the IRS, they believe their only hope for justice may lie in an appeal to the public and their elected representatives in Congress.

“The bottom line, in our opinion, is that we are being denied our constitutional rights and are being targeted unfairly by the IRS,” says Mr. Schleimer. “The IRS has repeatedly failed to follow even its own manual procedures and has not honored its agreements. I tried to work with them. I tried to play by their rules. Now I have no choice but to go public with this story.”

Last week, the Schleimers were notified of the most recent verdict in what seems like an endless nightmare of hearings — his bankruptcy will not be honored by the IRS, and Mrs. Schleimer’s income and assets will be subject to seizure for her husband’s old tax debt.

“All of our attorneys, who themselves are former IRS officers or trial lawyers, have repeatedly told us they have never seen a case like ours nor witnessed the type of behavior that has been displayed by the IRS agents involved,” said Mr. Schleimer.

Exclusive of penalties and interest, Schleimer has paid the IRS about $50,000 of the $86,299 owed on the back taxes. But the debts of his old company combined with the California real estate recession severely limited his ability to pay more, Schleimer says.

“I made a mistake about my 1983-1989 personal taxes, but what makes this country great is that you get a second chance to turn things around,” said Mr. Schleimer. “This greatness is one of the reasons it was an honor for me to serve in the U.S. Army from 1966 to 1973 as an officer and decorated combat helicopter pilot in Vietnam. Since 1990, with the great help and support of my wife, Celeste, I have paid all my taxes — almost $400,000 — and been a good citizen. There was never any evasion on my part to hide assets or money from the IRS. I have made a full disclosure to the IRS in attempting to resolve this situation, but I see why this agency is so disliked by the American public.”

Representatives of the IRS were unable to discuss the case. But Shelly Davis, the former IRS historian and author of “Unbridled Power,” said she had never heard of a case quite like this.

“I’ve never heard of the IRS asking taxpayers not to communicate with their congressional representatives, but I’m not surprised by it.” Davis. “They’ll try anything. It’s just another weapon in their vast arsenal.”

Schleimer’s congressional representative is not amused by the agency’s effort to squelch interaction between him and a constituent.

“These types of Gestapo tactics, if substantiated, are exactly the reason we should eliminate the IRS altogether,” said Rep. John Doolittle, R-CA. “The IRS may not have wanted me involved in this issue, but their heavy-handed approach toward one of my constituents will prove to have the opposite result.” Doolittle pledges to look into the case more thoroughly.