Catching up with: Dom LaPonzina, the Fed next door, isn't your average taxman. He's an upbeat guy with good advice -- someone even your accountant could love.

THE SUNSHINE BOY OF THE IRS

April 13, 1996|By Kevin Cowherd | Kevin Cowherd,SUN STAFF

It is late on a cloudless Wednesday afternoon when The Taxman walks into the lobby of WMAR-TV. He's here to spread the gospel of the Internal Revenue Service, which, despite the best intentions of government spin doctors, is still perceived this way by the general public: File by April 15 or we'll hunt you down like a dog.

To anyone expecting a career bureaucrat with pinched features and a lumpy gray suit that looks like something Khrushchev wore to a Politburo hearing on farm subsidies, The Taxman is a huge disappointment.

He's wearing a snappy Navy blue blazer, white shirt, gray slacks and mauve and blue pattern tie, and looking very Perry Ellis. His brown tassel loafers look so soft you want to borrow them to buff your car.

The Taxman is Dom LaPonzina, the IRS's chief spokesman for the Baltimore/Washington area. And on this day, with the tax filing deadline looming, he's here to answer viewer questions and provide tax tips on the 5 o'clock news, all of it in that smooth, airline-pilot's voice that has become his trademark.

For 17 years, Dom LaPonzina, 44, has been a ubiquitous presence on TV, on radio and in newspaper stories at tax time. His is the face behind a faceless bureaucracy. People stop him in the streets

("Aren't you that attorney that advertises on TV?") thinking he's Stephen L. Miles or a congressman or somebody they've seen before, somebody they know.

In a sense, they do know him. He's a Baltimore guy who attended Calvert Hall College, Towson State and Johns Hopkins, although he notes: "A lot of people think IRS [representatives] are hatched from pods."

Or worse, they think they're from Washington, with all the arrogance and shadowy power that ZIP code implies.

"When people think of a federal agency, they don't think [of] your neighbor," he says.

This reminds The Taxman of something that happened at his neighborhood Giant a few years ago.

He was wheeling his cart down the aisle when he felt someone tugging at his sleeve.

It turned out to be a little old lady who could have been your grandmother, although only if your grandmother was in the habit of gunning her cart up to total strangers.

In a voice normally heard only from people who've spotted the likeness of the Virgin Mary on the side of a barn, the woman cried: "You're Dom LaPonzina, the guy I see on TV! What are you doing here?!"

It seemed fairly obvious, what with the bread and Sunkist orange juice and Green Giant vegetables peeking out from his cart. But The Taxman answered politely: "Oh, I'm just grocery shopping."

"I thought you had people do that for you!" the woman replied, leaving Dom LaPonzina to wonder at the sense of detachment some people feel from their government agencies.

At parties and other social occasions, The Taxman says, people tend to act one of two ways around him.

Sometimes they shovel a cracker through the cheese dip and pepper him nonstop with questions. "I'm adding a deck to my house -- what's the tax impact?" "How can I use my car as a business vehicle and write off the expenses?"

Or they clam up like he's wired with a hidden microphone and the conversation is being monitored in the next room by a couple of grim-faced feds.

Sit down with him for five minutes, though, and it's clear Dom LaPonzina loves his job.

He knows the tax collector has been a reviled figure throughout history -- the ancient Egyptians paid various taxes to the pharaoh and grumbled about it. Fast-forward 4,500 years and you have a bunch of anti-government militants, known as Freemen, who are so opposed to taxes (among other things) that they've barricaded themselves on a ranch in Montana.

But Dom LaPonzina does not dwell on this -- he's the sort of person who would find something sunny to say about a famine.

The IRS, he points out, is tasked with the job of collecting the revenue that makes our country operate. And he thinks his agency, by and large, does a bang-up job, especially at this time of year.

"The fact that you've got the vast majority of people who file every year, get their refund and that's the end of it til next year -- all without a glitch -- I'd say that's a remarkable system," he points out.

At a few minutes after 5, The Taxman takes off his sport coat and settles in at a desk to one side of the WMAR newsroom, where a bank of telephones is manned by three IRS taxpayer service specialists.

"Time to go to work," The Taxman says. For the next hour, as the phone numbers are teased on the news, the four tax experts will answer a steady stream of questions from viewers.

Dom LaPonzina will select the three or four questions with the broadest appeal, then ask those viewers to call back for his answers during a live segment with consumer reporter Mark Silverstein near the end of the hour.

There will be no jitters when the red light winks on, either, no butterflies doing strafing runs in his stomach. This is a man perfectly comfortable in front of the cameras -- some have even called him a ham.

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