R.I.P. Donald C. Alexander

March 11, 2009

A month ago, former IRS Commissioner Donald C. Alexander passed away at the age of 87. While running the IRS from 1973 to 1977, he stopped President Nixon’s use of the IRS for political purposes:

Alexander, a prominent tax lawyer when he took the IRS job, learned the day after his swearing-in of a secret band of IRS investigators who combed through the tax returns of 3,000 “notorious” groups and 8,000 individuals.

Within three months, he ordered the unit disbanded, saying that political views “extremist or otherwise, are irrelevant to taxation,” he wrote in a 1999 editorial for the publication Tax Notes. “The evening of the same day, President Nixon made his first effort to fire me.”

Alexander refused to launch tax audits of those on Nixon’s infamous “enemies list,” blocked an effort by the Agriculture Department to obtain the tax returns of all American farmers and sharply curtailed IRS participation in federal investigations into drug trafficking, organized crime and white collar crime. He repeatedly urged Congress to stiffen taxpayer confidentiality laws, which it did in 1976.

He made a lot of enemies:

Within the I.R.S., Mr. Alexander became known as a stickler for proper procedure, which caused friction with the criminal investigation division. In Oval Office tapes, Nixon referred to him once, using a crude term, as someone who was prissy about legal procedure.

As someone who is “prissy” about legal procedure, I wonder what that term was.

Alexander’s reasons were ones I hope all his successors keep in mind:

Mr. Alexander closed the unit, he said in the article, because “political or social views, ‘extremist’ or otherwise, are irrelevant to taxation.”

Too bad we don’t heed his warning: today all sides seem to be jockeying to use tax credits and deductions to encourage or discourage behavior for political purposes.

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