A Message from the National Taxpayer Advocate

Friends and Colleagues,

I have been thinking what I can say to everyone who has been writing “reflections” throughout this month, and I have been having a hard time finding words.  Let me just say I am overwhelmed.  It has been my privilege to be part of a journey along which I have met so many fine people, who have dedicated their lives and made sacrifices to protect taxpayer rights, who care about access to justice and the fundamental fairness of the tax system.

 It is to you all that I owe thanks and appreciation.  That I have in some way been able to influence peoples’ lives and choices was never anything I set out to do, and I am just humbled and a bit astonished to read folks’ reflections.  I look forward to working with you all going forward, in my next step, through the Center for Taxpayer Rights.  You can reach me at neo@taxpayer-rights.org.

Nina

Reflections on the Impact of Nina Olson by Armando Gomez

We welcome Armando Gomez to provide this reflection on Nina on her final work day as National Taxpayer Advocate.  Armando is a partner with Skadden Arps and a former chair of the ABA Tax Section.  He was instrumental in Nina’s appointment to the position of National Taxpayer Advocate and so provides a perfect capstone to the reflections this month.    Keith

I first met Nina Olson some twenty-three years ago when, as a young lawyer for the National Commission on Restructuring the Internal Revenue Service, I was introduced to her by Janet Spragens. Just a few years out of law school, I had much to learn, and Nina and Janet were happy to educate me on what needed to be done to provide fairness and due process for taxpayers who could not afford to engage counsel to help them navigate the labyrinth that is the tax controversy process. The recommendations that they made to the Commission lead to important provisions of the 1998 Restructuring Act. More importantly, when it came time for the Secretary of the Treasury to appoint a National Taxpayer Advocate, Nina’s name quickly made it to the top of the list.

The Restructuring Commission’s mandate from Congress was to make recommendations for modernizing the IRS and improving its efficiency and taxpayer services. One of the lawyers working with me on the Commission’s staff had studied under Professor Spragens at American University’s Washington College of Law, and he invited her to meet with me to explain how tax clinics were starting to help fill a huge void in the tax system for unrepresented taxpayers. Janet introduced me to Nina, who wowed us all with her energy, determination and imagination. Through their advocacy, the Commission recommended that Congress enact various enhancements to the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, and to establish a matching grant program to support the development and expansion of low income taxpayer clinics. These recommendations, which were enacted as part of the 1998 Restructuring Act, were among the most meaningful and lasting changes that resulted from the Commission’s work.

Not long thereafter, when the IRS needed a new National Taxpayer Advocate, I received a call from former Deputy Commissioner Mike Murphy, who was helping to identify potential candidates for that role. It was obvious to me that Nina was already one of the nation’s leading taxpayer advocates, and Mike encouraged me to explore with her the possibility of putting her name in the hat for this appointment. Happily for all of us who care about the tax system, Nina eagerly accepted the challenge, and the rest is history. Nina tells this story a little differently, but what matters is not how she was appointed as the NTA, but that she received the appointment and made the most of it, building a lasting legacy that will benefit generations of taxpayers.

As reflected in the many tributes that have appeared on this blog, and as has been heard throughout the nation over the past months since Nina announced her retirement, Nina Olson has worked tirelessly as the National Taxpayer Advocate, working inside and outside of the IRS to bring attention to and address systemic problems. Although her predecessor did much to help establish the Taxpayer Advocate Service, Nina has forged TAS with her vision of how the organization can work proactively to ensure that all taxpayers get a fair shake, and to shine a bright light on problems requiring legislative solutions.

When the House Ways & Committee’s Oversight Subcommittee held a hearing on July 24, 1997 to consider the recommendations of the Restructuring Commission, then Senator Bob Kerrey, one of the two co-chairs of the Commission, testified that “there are twice as many people who pay taxes as vote” and that “Citizens’ faith that their government can be fair and efficient is dependent on a well-functioning IRS.” (Hearing before the Subcommittee on Oversight of the Committee on Ways & Means, House of Representatives, July 24, 1997 at 4.) Now more than ever, our Nation’s faith in government is being tested regularly. Fortunately, Nina Olson has helped to build important safeguards into the tax system to protect the rights of all taxpayers. She, more than anyone else, has helped to implement the “vision for a new IRS” contemplated in the 1997 report of the Restructuring Commission, and for that Nina will have the lasting thanks and gratitude of all of us who care about the tax system.

Reflections on the Impact of Nina Olson as National Taxpayer Advocate by Jack Manhire

Jack Manhire is currently the Assistant Vice President for Entrepreneurship and Economic Development, and the Assistant Dean and Chief of Staff of the School of Innovation at Texas A&M University. He has held previous and courtesy positions at Texas A&M’s School of Law and the Bush School of Government & Public Service, along with faculty fellowships at the Colleges of Medicine and Architecture. He has also held positions at the IRS and the U.S. Department of the Treasury.

Nina Olson: Tax Administration Innovator

There have been so many great reflections on the impact of Nina Olson as National Taxpayer Advocate on this blog, I wanted to add one from someone who worked directly for her at the Taxpayer Advocate Service. I had the honor for working for Nina first as one of her Attorney-Advisors, and then as the Director of Technical Analysis and Guidance for TAS.

For some, Nina can come across as an intimidating boss; one who demands perfection and is personally involved in almost every aspect of TAS operations. But this is not a criticism. In fact, Nina’s leadership style mirrors many of our country’s greatest innovators (e.g., Steve Jobs, Thomas Edison, etc.).

Working for her, I soon learned that what one might see as “demanding perfection” is actually a relentless dedication to the mission of TAS; a mission that she created singe-handedly. Her “hands on” involvement reflects her tenacious perseverance to the mission, and reflects her demand that the flames of that mission not merely stay lit, but rise and spread through the inspired dedication of her employees.

These are necessary attributes of a successful innovator, and also those of an entrepreneurial builder. Recall that the very first Annual Report to Congress (what we called the “ARC”), was every word written by Nina herself. This is because she wanted to ensure that she set the tone and example for future ARCs. She had the foresight to treat the annual report requirement as not a statutory chore, but an opportunity to innovate from within the IRS for the taxpayers to whom she has dedicated so much of her life.

And that entrepreneurial spirit never left. While future ARCs benefitted from a robust research and legal staff, every single theme, opinion, and suggestion was from first to last Nina’s project. I know this sounds amazing given that many of the annual reports were pushing 1,000 pages, but it is true and further testifies to Nina’s immense intellectual capacity.

And so, from my current chair, I see Nina as one of the great American innovators. Her vision and tireless effort produced innovations within the IRS, within the tax code, and within our public understanding of taxpayer rights that will inform future policy. There was a great deal to learn from Nina, and my own career ambitions at the time stunted some of those opportunities. But Nina was always there, not only to drive the message, mission, and vision personally, but also to care for her people and give them every opportunity to develop and succeed.

It is unlikely we will see another public policy and tax administration innovator such as Nina Olson any time soon. Her legacy is just too great to duplicate; and much of that legacy has only recently taken root. The next 10 to 20 years will reveal the far-reaching impact of her vision and tireless work.

Stay purple!

Reflections on the Impact of Nina Olson by Sheri Dillon

Today we welcome Sheri Dillon as our guest blogger to provide her reflection on the tenure of Nina Olson as National Taxpayer Advocate. Sheri is a partner with the Washington, D.C. office of Morgan Lewis where she specializes in tax controversy and has some significant clients. Sheri is also a person committed to pro bono work. She, and her partner Jennifer Breen, started a tax clinic to assist low income taxpayers in the DC area. She is the incoming vice chair of the ABA Tax Section in charge of pro bono matters for the Section. Keith

When I think of Nina, and the profound impact she has had on justice and fair tax administration for all, I come back to the same question. How did she do it? In reviewing the posts this past month on Procedurally Taxing, from my perspective, the answer can be summed up in one word: grit. Grit is passion, perseverance, courage, conscientiousness, and resilience. Simply stated, grit is refusing to take no for an answer.

I can’t think of anyone who embodies grit more than Nina. I am hoping to learn from Nina’s example, borrow some of her grit and make it my own. Like many private practitioners, it’s hard to find the time to take on the pro bono matters that I would like to. And when I am able to take them on, it’s frustrating to often find that I don’t have the tax knowledge or skills base to help them. Thanks to Nina, there exists a community of low-income taxpayer clinicians, as well as the Taxpayer Advocate Service, standing by ready and willing to help.

Also thanks to Nina, we can see that real change can be brought to a bureaucracy and tax administration agency as large and unwieldy as the Internal Revenue Service. And, as Nina demonstrated, some of that change can come from the outside – from tax practitioners, taxpayers, lawmakers, and the courts. I am hoping to work this next year to see what change I can help effect that will further the objective of equal access to justice and representation in matters before the Service.

Nina’s life work, coupled with her grit, created a system that provides representation for many of our low-income taxpayers – defined by Congress as those whose incomes do not exceed 250% of the poverty guidelines. While this has tremendously helped our most vulnerable taxpayers, it still leaves many taxpayers without representation and forced to pay more tax than they should under the tax law. Which raises the question – how can we ensure that taxpayers whose income exceeds 250% of the poverty guidelines but nonetheless can’t afford representation, are nonetheless represented? I don’t have the answer to this question, but am hoping to gather my grit, and work – along with the tax bar – to find the answer.

Reflection on the Impact of Nina Olson by Soreé Finley

We welcome Soreé Finley a senior attorney in the Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy. Soreé’s personal recollection of her first encounter with Nina reminds us how hard it is to start in a new area of practice. Keith

I can’t remember the exact year of my first LITC conference. I do however remember the elevator ride to the Hilton’s meeting rooms: There are several attendees on the elevator, all hoping to be seated by 8:30am. I am a new attorney and I want to impress my LITC Director with my timeliness, but I’m struggling with the early start time.

I walk into this big meeting room and there’s a nervous and excited energy among the attendants. I’m nervous too, of course—it’s my first legal conference and I’m in a room full of attorneys. As I look for my table, I keep hearing the word “N.I.N.A.”, and figure it’s one more IRS acronym I’ll have to learn.

I sit at my table as my watch displays 8:30. Someone approaches the podium and the room goes silent. It’s Nina—not N.I.N.A.—Olson, the National Taxpayer Advocate. For the first time, but not the last, I am blown away by her profound and contagious commitment to taxpayer advocacy.

Years after my first introduction to Ms. Olson, I am still inspired by her courage and willingness to ensure taxpayers and tax practitioners have a positive and consistent experience when interfacing with the IRS. There are millions of taxpayers who may never know Nina Olson’s name, but her legacy and impact on taxpayer advocacy will continue long after she retires.

Reflections on the Impact of Nina Olson by Alice Abreu

We welcome Professor Alice Abreu. Alice teaches tax at Temple Law School. She is a great teacher and winner of many awards at Temple. She has long wanted to engage her students in practical learning about tax which led her to create what I believe was the first tax class at a law school designed to train the students to serve as volunteers for Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA). Her students fan out across the Philadelphia region to assist low income filers. In class they not only learn practical lessons about how to fill out returns but how to deal with clients and they see the direct impact of tax policy. Keith

Nina Olson is a force of nature. Not only has she changed tax administration in this country but she has created an international movement for taxpayer rights. Her influence on the tax systems of both the United States and other jurisdictions is immeasurable. Her Annual Reports to Congress contain treasure troves of original research that only someone in her position could have conducted, and her Legislative Recommendations have provided Congress with a blueprint for more effective tax administration. I don’t know what Congress expected when it created the Office of the Taxpayer Advocate and the position of the National Taxpayer Advocate, but I’m pretty sure that few who were involved with the passage of the Internal Revenue Service Restructuring and Reform Act of 1998 imagined the vision, tenacity, dedication, and creativity with which Nina has performed her job for the past 18 years or could have foreseen what Nina has made of the Taxpayer Advocate Service and the position of National Taxpayer Advocate. She leaves behind a strong organization with a cadre of skilled and dedicated employees who will miss their leader mightily, but who have learned from her and are inspired and prepared to carry on her legacy. Kudos to all of the people who had the wisdom to make her appointment happen near the turn of the century. Taxpayers and the tax system are in your debt.

But readers of this blog know everything I’ve just said and have said much of it themselves in this series of tributes. I therefore want to offer an additional frame for Nina’s accomplishments. That frame is legal education. Through her advocacy on behalf of LITCs both before and after she became the NTA Nina transformed tax education in law schools. The increase in the number of LITCs that followed the availability of federal matching dollars not only had a deep impact on the taxpayers who were served by the new LITCs, as many have noted, but also affected the students who have worked in the academic clinics and for whom there are now more potential jobs working in the public interest. It also expanded the coverage of tax curricula; the many definitions of dependent, the EITC, offers in compromise, and the intricacies of tax procedure and administration—subjects rarely covered in any depth in the typical law school introductory tax course—are now well-known to the many students who have to master them in order to represent their clients in LITCs.

Moreover, the growth in academic LITCs likely increased the proportion of students who study tax, because an LITC can attract to the study of tax students who want to help low income individuals but who might have otherwise avoided tax. Even those of us who are not clinicians can point to students whose introduction to the tax system was through their work in an LITC and who almost certainly would not have become tax lawyers otherwise. In helping to expand dramatically the number of LITCs, Nina thereby changed the professional trajectory of many law students’ lives, and for reasons I’ve discussed elsewhere, this magnet effect might even help to increase the diversity of the tax bar.

More specifically and personally, Nina affected tax education at Temple and my own professional life in lasting ways. Her support was crucial to my ability to develop a course that has become a popular and important addition to our tax curriculum. Low Income Taxpayer Policy & Practice allows us to leverage VITA to provide students with an experience which differs from the LITC experience but which is similarly valuable. The course combines tax policy with public service and introduces students to the challenges of tax administration through close study of the current Annual Report to Congress. Developing and then teaching that course has been professionally transformative for me. Nina was a guest lecturer in its inaugural year and an inspiration for the nearly 200 students who came to hear her discuss her life’s work later that day. She thus launched what is now an eight-year-long tradition of bringing a current or former high ranking government official to deliver Temple’s Fogel Lecture. Last year, Nina was the keynote speaker at our annual Law Review Symposium, which focused on the U.S. Taxpayer Bill of Rights, a concept and a statutory provision which almost certainly would not exist without her. Our tax curriculum and our students’ education are stronger for her inspiration and participation.

So thank you Nina, for what you’ve done for taxpayers, for tax administration, for law students, and for those of us who have had the great privilege of knowing you and working with you. Here’s looking forward to what the next chapter of your life holds.

Reflections on the Impact of Nina Olson by Bob Probasco

We welcome regular guest blogger Bob Probasco. Bob is the director of the Low Income tax Clinic at Texas A&M University School of Law. Prior to starting the clinic at Texas A&M, Bob had a long a varied career in different tax positions. Before law school, he spent more than twenty years in various accounting and business positions, including with one of the “Big Four” CPA firms and Mobil Oil Corporation. After law school and a year clerking with Judge Lindsay of the Northern District of Texas, he practiced tax law with the Dallas office of Thompson & Knight. He left T&K in 2014 and started a solo practice before switching to full time academia. Keith

I’ve been working in tax controversy for eighteen years now, but most of that was with a large law firm in Dallas. The tax system works fairly well for people like our clients. If they have a dispute with the IRS, they know exactly where to find (and can afford to hire) the right people to solve it. So I’ve known of Nina for a long time but I didn’t begin to really understand the full extent of her impact until I joined the LITC community in late 2016. For what it’s worth, here are some aspects of Nina’s work that stand out to this “new kid.”

Relentless warrior: I think someone else referred to Nina as a fierce warrior, which she is. But “relentless” is more impressive to me. The IRS is a huge, unwieldy bureaucracy and therefore incredibly difficult to change. It takes time and coming back, year after year after year, to achieve change. Most of us who beat our heads against a brick wall will lose our enthusiasm at some point. Nina absolutely will not stop. (Yes, she’s retiring – but that just means changing where she sits; her battles on behalf of taxpayers won’t stop.)

Educator: More than almost anyone I can think of, Nina has incorporated into her efforts the insight that to make the tax system work better, education (in a broad sense and of a lot of different groups) is critical. Her annual report is about not just identifying necessary reforms but also giving Congress a better understanding of how the system currently works and how problems arise. Her “Roadmap of a Tax Controversy” videos were originally designed for TAS employees. As she put it, no matter what they do in TAS, they have to understand the larger context in order to do their best. We’ve just seen the “subway map,” which will help taxpayers understand not only how complex the system is but how to navigate through it. And of course she’s directed a lot of research and advocacy into the specific topic of how the IRS needs to better educate taxpayers in notices and correspondence.

As the director of an academic LITC, this aspect of Nina’s work particularly impresses me. I will always point my students to the videos, the map, and the annual reports to Congress.

General: I had this thought initially when Nina spoke at the first Annual Grantee conference I attended, in December 2016. She was talking to her “troops” – the LITCs as much as TAS staff – in a different manner than I see with other audiences. She’s not just talking about issues, she’s giving us our orders. Nina loves her troops but demands a lot from us as well; she makes clear the need for our best efforts and explains things we need to do better. (Why are you doing so many CNCs instead of OICs? Can you find opportunities in litigation to give real teeth to the TBOR?) The mission is too important for us to give anything less.

Working in an LITC can be frustrating. We’re dealing with a huge bureaucracy with over-worked and under-trained employees while representing clients who may struggle to give us what we need to help them. We can’t always get the results we think our clients deserve. I suspect I’m far from the only one who walks out of Nina’s speeches not only with a lot of new ideas and clearer direction but also feeling re-energized. And I thought: exhausted from our efforts, perhaps feeling stressed and out-numbered and not confident in success, but now ready to charge up the hill? What a minute – that’s the movie scene with the general rallying her troops right before the big battle! Henry V at Agincourt, Aragorn before the Black Gate of Mordor, or Teddy Roosevelt at Kettle Hill are dramatic examples; add Nina to the list.

Builder: I confess that, before reading Keith’s article “History of Low-Income Taxpayer Clinics,” I wasn’t aware that Nina built from scratch the first non-academic LITC. Starting a new LITC isn’t easy, even with a strongly established tradition, support from an academic institution, and the help of the TAS LITC Program Office. What Nina faced was a far more daunting challenge but she succeeded. Of course, she has also built a strong Taxpayer Advocate Service; despite losing a great NTA, TAS will thrive – or they’ll have to answer to her.

In addition to organizations and institutions, Nina recruits people, to build the general community of those who want to help low-income taxpayers. Ted Afield’s post mentioned her making time to talk with all of the students at the 25th anniversary celebration for his LITC, in part so “she could influence them to always be thinking of how the tax system could be inadvertently hurting the most vulnerable among us.” I saw the same thing when she spoke at the 2017 annual meeting of the State Bar of Texas Tax Section. This was in June, when most students are busy with summer jobs or summer relaxing, but three of my former students from another law school attended the conference; Nina’s speech was the big draw. And when she spoke with them, at length, afterward? They will remember that for a long time.

In my brief time in the LITC community, I still haven’t fully realized Nina’s impact on the tax world. But that’s true (to a lesser degree) even for the veterans such as Keith, Les, Christine and all those who sent in their reflections. If Nina never did anything more, we would continue for many years to see changes that trace back to her tenure as NTA.

Reflections on the Impact of Nina Olson by David Sams

We welcome David Sams who directs the Community Tax Law Project in Richmond, Virginia. David reflects on Nina’s impact as it impacts his current position as head of the organization she founded. Keith

What is it like to walk in the steps of a tireless champion of taxpayers’ rights, an intellectual giant, a tax legend, Nina Olson? Intimidating would be one way to describe being the director of the Community Tax Law Project (CTLP), the clinic Nina started in 1992 and used as her initial incubator of her ideas, energy, and passion for fighting for the rights of low-income taxpayers. However, I feel that the word “challenging” is much more appropriate given the legacy Nina created at CTLP.

As those of you who have attended an LITC annual conference know well, Nina Olson is all about challenge. She challenges the clinics to get the best solution for our clients, not just a good solution. She challenges the IRS to administer our tax system in a manner that is fair and just. She challenges Congress to make legislative decisions that best serve the taxpayer. Why am I using the present tense when describing Nina’s challenges? My choice of verb tense is because I know Nina’s legacy will not end when her employment with the federal government ends.

Has Nina ever challenged me personally? My answer is yes, but not directly (unless you count those inspirational speeches at the LITC conference). When Nina became the National Taxpayer Advocate, she always maintained a professional distance from CTLP, and rightly so. However, her challenge exists all around me every day, literally and figuratively. Literally, I sit at her old desk that she purchased in a rush to spend her first grant award money (it is a very stylish desk, stop by and see it sometime). In my filing cabinets, I have many of her old notes on the establishment of not only CTLP but also what would become the LITC program, as we now know it. Did you know that Nina Olsen also ran a law journal? She sure did, namely “The Community Tax Law Report.” There are multiple volumes. Feeling challenged yet? The physical copies of the “Report” are on our shelves, stop by and flip through an issue.

Did you also know that Nina was a stellar fundraising executive? Before she began convincing Congress to fund the LITC program, Nina was making some great “asks” of Richmond’s most established foundations. We still have the letters and responses. Some of these organizations still support CTLP in some way or another.

Not only did Nina have a solid fundraising acumen, she also excelled generally in the “ask.” Many of CTLP’s former board members and supporters have told me the story of their first interaction with Nina, who would never accept “no” as an answer to whatever she was “asking” from them. Most of these high-powered tax professionals became Nina’s life-long friends, colleagues, and admirers, and they remind me of this on a regular basis. Literally, I cannot walk into my office without the feeling of “do more”, “do it better”, and most importantly “make a difference” emanating from the furniture and the fixtures. Did I mention that we have some of Nina’s old lamps?

While I joke around about the furniture, I have been challenged by Nina on a deeper level. I had heard Nina speak a few years before I began working at CTLP. I knew she was a big deal in the tax world, but her work with LITCs was only remotely related to the work I was doing in private practice. When I accepted my position at CTLP, all of that changed. My predecessor, Elaine Javonovich, a friend and colleague to many of you as well as a close friend of Nina’s, quickly brought me up to speed on Nina’s expectations for all LITC professionals. I am also lucky enough to work alongside Nancy Rossner, who I consider one of the best tax controversy lawyers I have ever met. Nancy further exemplifies the high level of work expected for an LITC professional. I directly attribute Nancy’s high level of expertise and professionalism to Nina’s legacy. Was I challenged by all of this? Of course.

My challenge from Nina is simple – “do more”, “do it better”, and “make a difference.” Nina has never spoken or written those words that I am aware. However, Nina’s lifetime of work has led me to write them here as a description of how I approach my work at CTLP, because of her. When we report on our clinic activities, we can only hint at how people are “doing more”, “doing it better”, and “making a difference.” However, I see it all the time in the work of our clinic and other clinics around the country. Work that is done purely to make sure our clients are treated as fairly and justly as possible, that their stories are heard, and that the best result is achieved. In CTLP’s world, we are always looking for more cases, more complex cases, more ways to reach clients, better ways serve our clients, better ways to disseminate information, more avenues to educate the public, more, more, and more. More ways to make a difference. That is Nina’s challenge to me, and I have accepted.

In my humble opinion, Nina’s legacy will be more than the sum of all of the parts she created. It will be more than the LITC program. It will be more than her Congressional testimony, more than the thousands of words spoken and written, and more than the awards she has received. Her legacy will be the spark that ignites a fire in a practitioner to fight tooth and nail for a taxpayer who is not being treated fairly by the tax system. It will be the spark that urges a practitioner to write about an injustice they are experiencing, or the spark to advocate for a change in the law. I can say that I have received that spark, as I know many of my fellow LITC clinicians have. At the moment, I get to sit at Nina’s old desk, steward her old documents, and briefly walk in her footsteps. However, as low-income taxpayer clinic professionals, we will all continue to walk in these footsteps, carrying the spark, and fighting for the access to justice that all taxpayers deserve, and we thank you, Nina Olson, tireless champion of taxpayers’ rights, intellectual giant, and tax legend, for that spark and so much more.