Bloomberg Tax, ‘Advocate Zealously’ for Taxpayers, IRS's Olson Urges Successor:
“Not a team player.” “A thorn in the government’s side.” “The voice of the taxpayer.”
Outgoing National Taxpayer Advocate Nina E. Olson has been called many things, and she bears those titles—both the good and the bad—proudly.
Olson, who retires as head of the Taxpayer Advocate Service July 31 after 18 years, is no stranger to controversy. Her role—part of an independent arm of the Internal Revenue Service where taxpayers can turn for help if they have a dispute with the agency—has naturally pitted her against senior IRS leadership occasionally.
But looking back at her time in the government, Olson wouldn’t change her approach. And Congress, which created the role to act as an independent voice for the American taxpayer, might have something to say about it if her successor feels otherwise.
“The next person may have a different style,” she told Bloomberg Tax in a sitdown interview. “But they will still need to advocate zealously.”
Olson spoke about the sometimes-contentious relationship in her last public speaking engagement as the national advocate. ...
Olson said her biggest regret as advocate is that she didn’t notice the IRS’s targeting of certain political groups sooner.
The Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration found that beginning in 2010 the IRS inappropriately gave greater scrutiny to conservative organizations applying for tax-exempt status under tax code Section 501(c)(4) based on their names or political leanings. 501(c)(4) tax-exempts are allowed to engage in political activity as long as it isn’t their primary activity.
Prior to the report, the issue had been percolating among some circles on Capitol Hill. But it came to a head when Lois Lerner, then-IRS Exempt Organizations Director, at a 2013 conference talked about the agency’s process for reviewing the applications. The revelation spurred years of aggressive IRS budget cuts by a Republican-controlled Congress.
TIGTA later found that additional scrutiny also extended to liberal organizations.
Olson said she hadn’t been aware of the issue until Lerner made her comments and taxpayers began flagging the issue with lawmakers. Until then, the Taxpayer Advocate Service—over the two-plus years the targeting was occurring—had only received 19 cases dealing with 501(c)(4) organizations out of about a million cases, Olson said. The amount wasn’t enough to raise any major alarms, she said, adding that she doesn’t think those organizations were aware the service could be an outlet for them.
“It was so far down the line that we started getting them,” Olson said. “By that point, it was just a mess.”
The Hill, Taxpayer Advocate Heading to Greener Pastures:
Nina Olson has served as the IRS’s in-house watchdog for close to two decades, earning praise from lawmakers across the political spectrum, but now she says the time has come to step down from her role of national taxpayer advocate.
“Eighteen years is a long time. I turned 65. I want another phase of my life. And it just seemed like a good time,” Olson told The Hill last month in an interview at IRS headquarters, where she is based.
Olson, who is stepping down on July 31, leads the Taxpayer Advocate Service, an organization with about 1,625 employees nationwide that works to help taxpayers resolve problems with the IRS. Her job also involves submitting reports to Congress about the biggest challenges facing the IRS and making recommendations about possible legislative changes to help taxpayers. While it’s housed within the IRS, the advocate’s office is often adversarial to the agency because its job is to hold it accountable.
Olson said that her office is “arguably the most important entity for building trust in the IRS” and that it’s important for her successor, who has not yet been named, to protect its independence. “There will be days where it will be very, very hard to do that,” she said.
Olson’s willingness to challenge the IRS’s leadership and her work helping taxpayers has made her widely respected among both Republicans and Democrats. ...
The IRS solicited applications for the next national taxpayer advocate in May. Olson’s successor will be appointed by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, after consultation with IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig.
Update: Nina Olson, Farewell:
Today is the last day of my tenure as the National Taxpayer Advocate. It has been a wild ride over these last 18 years. It will take me years to sort out what has gone on over this period. I have been so privileged to have seen so much, learned so much, worked with wonderful people and assisted long-suffering taxpayers and representatives as they navigate the IRS “underground” (2019 Roadmap). I’ve been fortunate to work with so many committed members of Congress and their staff, in the House and the Senate, on both sides of the aisles. The Taxpayer Advocate Service’s remit – to ensure taxpayers are treated right by the IRS and their rights protected – has no party affiliation; witness the recently enacted Taxpayer First Act.
I have been overwhelmed by the outpouring of emails, comments, and reflections these last few weeks. I really don’t know how to express my own gratitude for the patience of taxpayers and their representatives as TAS and I have tried to make their case over the years on all sorts of issues. The way I have been able to accept these tributes is to say to myself, “People think it is me, but it is all of TAS. One person alone can’t do this.” Without the people of TAS, without supporters inside and outside the IRS, urging us on, we wouldn’t be able to bring about change. The role TAS and the National Taxpayer Advocate play in tax administration is that of a change agent. Because of the bureaucratic nature of the IRS, change is slow. But TAS does not give up.
Which leads me to the topic of this blog. When I announced my retirement in a blog on March 1, 2019, I identified a “short list” of items I planned to focus on, intently, over the months remaining in my tenure. Previously, the IRS Commissioner had asked me to come up with some recommendations or issues that could be addressed, preferably without significant expenditure of resources, so I designed the short list to fit that bill, as well. What follows is an update on where we are with the short list. ...
I am going to take the month of August off to just …. relax and cogitate. But I will be back, as the Executive Director of the Center for Taxpayer Rights. Among several projects, I will be organizing the 5th International Conference on Taxpayer Rights, in partnership with the Taxpayer Advocate Service, hosted by the University of Pretoria, South Africa, on September 30 and October 1, 2020. After August 1, 2020, you can reach me at email@example.com.
And … thank you. I will say again, it has been an enormous privilege to serve as the National Taxpayer Advocate. To say I will miss it, is an understatement. But there is much to do, going forward, and I look forward to the next stage.
Wall Street Journal Tax Report, ‘My Role Is Not to Be a Shill for the IRS’:
Internal Revenue Service commissioners have for years told Nina Olson she’s not a team player. She doesn’t care. That isn’t her job.
Since 2001, Ms. Olson has been the National Taxpayer Advocate, the person charged with representing Americans’ interests with the IRS. The advocate reports to Congress on systemic problems affecting the tax system and also manages the Taxpayer Advocate Service—an independent group within the agency with more than 1,600 employees who assist taxpayers experiencing economic harm from IRS problems.
“My role is not to be a shill for the IRS,” she says.
Over her long tenure, Ms. Olson has become widely known by her first name. IRS commissioners tell lieutenants to “run that past Nina.” Tax professionals say a problem “was so bad we had to go to Nina.” A drawing card for tax conference organizers is, “Nina will be there.”
Now she is retiring at age 65. She figures that over the last 18 years she has solved problems for 4 million filers. She has also made some 40 recommendations enacted by Congress and persuaded the IRS to make hundreds of administrative changes.
Prior TaxProf Blog coverage: