If the taxman’s abusing you, stay mad and see a pro
Can you imagine a better way for a wonk like me to pass time over the holidays than delving into a new book about the taxman’s transgressions?
Well, I can — and for two reasons. One relates to actually having a lot more fun things to do. The other is a reflection on the specific book I read — The Taxman is Watching, published by Harper Collins and written by a father- and- son team of Ontariobased tax lawyers, Paul and Philippe DioGuardi, who have offices across Canada, including Vancouver.
I expected, at the very least, to feel a pang of professional jealousy as a writer who is new to the tax- horror story genre. After all, these guys have had their whole careers to collect a trove of hair- raising tales.
Instead, I found myself mildly irked at the informercial- like tone of much of the book. It consists primarily of a series of anecdotes, many of them vague, that are generally followed by an admonition for the reader to retain a lawyer.
This admonition, by the way, comes with little hint of what the price tag will be. My readers tell me they’ve had estimates — often in the 10s, and sometimes in the 100s, of thousands of dollars — for legal fees to fight their cases. But the DioGuardis offer only an isolated, casual warning that it could get “ expensive.”
This, of course, is a key problem in most of the cases of taxpayer abuse I’ve been writing about. Taxpayers are far too often stonewalled by Canada Revenue Agency staff whose actions and inactions make a mockery of internal review processes. Thus the only way for victims to fight back — no matter how capricious and insubstantial the case against them — is through the prohibitively expensive courts.
The lawyer/ authors seem to be primarily concerned with the law, while I — as a journalist with a low threshold of outrage — like to think my lens focuses on what is just, not merely what’s legal. There can be a big difference. And I don’t care what the law says — other than, if it’s stupid or unjust it should be changed. My concern in cases I write about is whether the outcome is fair.
So, for sympathy — no matter if you’re the victim of bureaucratic indifference, incompetence and / or vindictiveness, or if you’ve innocently transgressed some inane law — you might come to me. But for advice, see a pro.
That’s especially true if you’re guilty of something — and it’s guilty people who seem to be this book’s primary target audience. The DioGuardis argue strongly for putting your money on a l aw ye r, n o t a n a cco u n t a n t . Accountants can be forced to testify against their clients, the authors stress repeatedly, but lawyers, protected by privilege, cannot.
They’re also big on turning yo u r s e l f in be f o re yo u g e t caught. They argue that a lawyer can often negotiate reduced penalties if you confess up front. This may be true, although it doesn’t sit well with my sense of justice. I despise a system where s o m e p e o p l e ( t h o s e w i t h lawyers) are treated better than those without.
Of course, this isn’t the only injustice stemming from the CRA double standards. Another that I contribute to directly is that people I write about seem to get much better treatment as soon as their stories are published. It’s not that I don’t think they deserve better treatment, it’s that I feel for those who don’t have an advocate in the press.
But we don’t have to like the taxman — we have to live with him. So my advice is, if you’re guilty and you know your bill is going to be big, call the lawyer right now. But if you’re just aggrieved — treated shabbily by slack- asses or petty tyrants — and if the amount is less than a lawyer will likely charge, then maybe not.
You could just pay up and get on with your life.
Or you can go down fighting. Inundate the minister’s office with appeals to reason, and send me copies. ( My e- mails on the subject number well over 800, and I can’t possibly write about them all. But the CRA can’t tell which ones might pop up in print if they don’t smarten up.)
You should also enlist the help of your MP. Push to speak to CRA officials who have some authority and are willing to use it, keep track of what they tell you, and keep track of any runaround you get. Demand the overdue appointment of the promised ombudsman, and make a case. Stay mad as hell, and vow not to take it any more.
I don’t know if these things will work, but I can’t believe they’ll make things any worse. And a lot of victims tell me they feel better if they have a chance to vent.