The Internal Revenue Service says as many as 10,000 people who worked for Johns Hopkins University in 1985 could soon receive IRS notices asking for payment of unpaid taxes and interest from 1988.
Happily, most of the letters have been sent in error -- the lingering echoes of a mistake two years ago at the Social Security Administration.
Hopkins spokesman Dennis O'Shea said the error "wasn't Hopkins'; it was the Social Security Administration's originally, and it's now beginning to surface at the IRS."
The people receiving the notices all appear to be people who either worked for the university in 1985, or who received other income from the school, such as graduate student stipends, officials say.
O'Shea said the problems began in 1988, when the Social Security Administration told Hopkins officials they were having problems with a magnetic data tape containing the wage and earnings records of thousands of people who received income from Hopkins in 1985. The Social Security Administration asked Hopkins to send a duplicate of the tape.
But when it arrived, O'Shea said, "apparently someone was not aware of our reason for sending it, and they went ahead and treated it as if it was 1988 income."
That led first to problems for Hopkins retirees, who last year began getting notices from Social Security questioning their 1988 income and Social Security benefits.
"That's when it was determined what the problem was," O'Shea said. "We went back to Social Security and they agreed it was a mistake and said they would fix it. They also agreed to make sure there were no problems with the IRS."
But the 1985 Hopkins data tape remained in a government file somewhere, erroneously labeled as 1988 wages and earnings.
This year, when the IRS began running computer matches comparing 1988 taxpayer returns with the erroneous 1988 Social Security data from Hopkins, it found many discrepancies, and its computers began spitting out notices asking taxpayers to pay up on unreported income from 1988.
The letters began going out in July, and continue to be mailed in "waves" from the IRS Service Center in Philadelphia, said Sam Serio, spokesman for the IRS Baltimore district.
"It may affect about 10,000 people," he said.
But not everyone agrees. A Towson resident, who declined to give his name, said his son received one of the tax notices this week. It demanded $229 in unpaid taxes and $37 interest on $1,915 in unreported 1988 income from Hopkins.
"He's never worked for Johns Hopkins University," the man said. His son is now a medical student in another state and never attended Hopkins.
Hopkins officials say they don't know why the medical student received the notice. They also said they don't know of other notices going to taxpayers who never were affiliated with the university.
Serio said the IRS could not stop the mailings because some of the letters may deal with a mixture of 1985 and 1988 income. It will be up to individual taxpayers to sort it out and tell the IRS what was 1985 income already reported, and what, if any, is 1988 income they failed to report. Taxpayers who find duplicate earnings, or earnings from a prior year, should write "Johns Hopkins duplicate" on the back and send the notice to the IRS Service Center, Serio said.
For further assistance, taxpayers may call George H. Bangert, tax reporting manager for Hopkins, at 338-8442.