Voice of Mr. Tax reaches crooks and crannies


April 05, 1991|By ROGER SIMON

It is during the next 10 days that Domenic J. LaPonzina becomes the conscience of America.

When you are filling out your tax form and are tempted to forget about reporting that $100 you won in the office pool by correctly picking Duke to win the NCAA tournament, it is his voice that you hear speaking from the depths of your soul.

"It is income," LaPonzina's voice says. "And you must report it."

"But it was from betting," you reply, "and betting is illegal so why do I have to report it?"

"Does the name Al Capone ring a bell?" says the voice. "Even illegal income must be reported."

"But . . ." you start to say.

"It is INCOME!" roars the voice. "And you must report it. And, puh-leeze, don't forget to sign your return."

As the IRS public affairs officer for the Baltimore District, which includes all of Maryland and the District of Columbia, Domenic J. LaPonzina is inescapable at this time of year.

Try to turn on a TV or a radio in the next 10 days and avoid him. Go ahead and try.

"No, ma'am," he will be saying on the call-in shows. "Veterinary expenses for your poodle are not tax-deductible."

"But FiFi is like a child to me," the woman will say.

"I'm sorry, ma'am," LaPonzina will respond in his tone of polite authority, "but I don't make the tax laws."

I first met LaPonzina at Jeffrey and Karol Levitt's house on the morning that eight IRS agents had shown up, knocked on their door and then had proceeded to cart away their worldly goods merely because the Levitts allegedly had failed to pay some $1.6 million in back taxes.

My notes on LaPonzina began with: "Well-cut gray suit, red-striped shirt, tasseled black loafers, white pocket handkerchief."

He was businesslike and straightforward as movers hired by the IRS filled two big, green Mayflower vans with the Levitts' antique slot machines, bars of silver, traveler's checks, Krugerrands, an upright piano, silverware, crystal and four of their seven TV sets.

The IRS did leave some things behind such as clothing (except for fur coats) and kitchen appliances.

I asked LaPonzina what rule of thumb he used in deciding what to seize and what to leave.

"If it looks valuable," he said, "we take it."

I liked him from that moment on.

LaPonzina, 39, is not some pasty-faced number cruncher. He drives a classic Mercedes sports car (burgundy exterior, beige leather interior), likes horseback riding and dresses in a style that only can be described as exquisite.

He is divorced and has a daughter, he is a graduate of Calvert Hall College, Towson State and Johns Hopkins, and he covered the Spiro Agnew trial for ABC network news before joining the IRS in 1973.

Now, he spends 12 months a year educating voters about taxes, but he knows that about 30 percent of the taxpayers in this area will wait until the last week to file, many waiting until the last day or last hour to get their returns postmarked April 15.

But is that absolutely necessary? I asked. I mean, what if, ha-ha, I miss it by a day and my return is postmarked April 16? Will two big guys show up and confiscate my bars of silver?

"The vast majority of people, 97 percent, get their returns in on time," LaPonzina said. "For the rest, there is a late filing penalty."

So get it in on time, which means you'd better hurry, but don't hurry so much that you forget to sign it. About 4 percent of the people in this area will forget to sign their forms, which sounds pretty good, until you realize that 4 percent is about 104,000 people.

LaPonzina believes that most taxpayers do not cheat on their taxes, though he bases his belief on more than a faith in the natural goodness of mankind. "Most people don't cheat because most people can't cheat," he said. "They are wage earners, and their taxes are withheld at the work site, and they file simple returns.

"But of the others, I think a majority are honest. You do read stories about tax cheaters, of course. But most of those stories are about tax cheaters who have been caught."

And don't think the IRS just goes after the biggies like the Levitts. No, indeed. The IRS also goes after people like waiters and waitresses who don't report all their tips.

LaPonzina mentioned the successful prosecution of a number of waiters at the famous Palm Restaurant in Washington who were caught trying to keep Uncle Sam from getting every last cent that he deserved.

LaPonzina also said the same thing had occurred at some well-known restaurants in Baltimore, but he could not give me the names because the cases were settled without litigation.

As an IRS employee, LaPonzina's own tax returns are audited on a random basis, and the IRS expects him to lead a reasonably upright life.

"I would not want to be seen hanging around in some gutter reeking of wine," he said. (Though if he were, I'll bet he would have the right pocket handkerchief for the occasion.)

But I was interviewing LaPonzina not merely to talk about taxes. I wished to speak to him because I had just seen the May issue of Playboy, in which there is an eight-page nude photo layout of a former IRS agent.

And the agent, Ms. Liz Pasko, announced as her turn-on: "Being kissed all over my body while blindfolded."

Now I wished to know Domenic J. LaPonzina's turn-on.

"The challenge of taking legal gobbledygook and translating it into something that ordinary people can understand," he said.

And, puh-leeze, don't forget to sign your return.

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