It wasn’t Yogi Berra who spoke this wonderful sentence: “From the minute it went live, it was dead on arrival.”
But, the guy who did say it, Robert Gardner, a 39-year veteran of the IRS, a top official at the agency’s tax whistleblower office, didn’t mean to put a smile on your face.
Quite the opposite. Gardner was grieving for the premature burial of what was meant to the Internal Revenue Service’s greatest effort ever to catch the baddest of the super-rich, the ones not content to live off their legitimate earnings, but who try to cheat on their taxes.
The Global High Wealth team was a special IRS unit aimed at unmasking the real incomes the greed champions had hidden behind forests of legal paper and piles of accountants’ numbers. When it was launched in 2009, the first year of the Obama administration, the plan was to assign 242 of the best forensic examiners in the IRS by 2012, to balance the scales of people and resources the government could bring to battle the financial designers and bean counters in the service of the 1%. But by 2014, the greed busters counted only 96 auditors. By 2017, there were 58.
These cutbacks were part of an overall shrinkage of the audit function at the IRS forced by the Republican majorities in Congress from 2011 to 2018. The cutbacks were far from equal. Over that period, the IRS lost about one-third of its auditors, while the Wealth Team wound up 76% under its original budget.
If the Congressional GOP was busy keeping the taxman away from the wealthiest Americans, it was those same Republicans who were insisting that the IRS keep the pressure on some of our country’s poorest, the people who qualify for the Earned Income Tax Credit, most of whom have family incomes of $20,000 to $30,000.
Believe it or not, these poor people, who make up 3% of the American population, now account for 36% of IRS audits, a disproportionate number of them, sophisticated mapping has shown, African-American families in the rural counties of five states in the Deep South; Mississippi, Georgia, Louisiana, Florida and Alabama.
Jesse Eisinger is a senior reporter and editor at ProPublica. He is the author of the “The Chickenshit Club: Why the Justice Department Fails to Prosecute Executives.”
In April 2011, he and a colleague won the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting for a series of stories on questionable Wall Street practicesthat helped make the financial crisis the worst since the Great Depression. He won the 2015 Gerald Loeb Award for commentary. He has also twice been a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting.
He serves on the advisory board of the University of California, Berkeley’s Financial Fraud Institute.
He was a regular columnist for The New York Times’s Dealbook section. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, NewYorker.com, The Washington Post, The Baffler, The American Prospect and on NPR and “This American Life.” Before joining ProPublica, he was the Wall Street Editor of Conde Nast Portfolio and a columnist for the Wall Street Journal, covering markets and finance.
He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, the journalist Sarah Ellison, and their daughters.