Crackdown on the sofa scofflaws

May 30, 1999|By Barry Rascovar

WHAT will that wacky Donald Schaefer think of next?

As Baltimore's mayor, he amused us by swimming with the seals at the aquarium.

As Maryland's governor, he set tongues awagging with his scatological remark about the Eastern Shore.

Now as the state's elected comptroller, he wants to turn mild-mannered Annapolis tax-collectors into pit-bull police enforcers.

Comptroller William Donald Schaefer has hired his old pal Larry Tolliver to start cracking down on folks who don't pay their state taxes.

No more Mr. Nice Guy at the comptroller's office. Forget about "God bless you all real good" Louie Goldstein and his folksy, customer-friendly approach. It's time to get tough.

There's money to be had for state coffers, after all. To all those Marylanders who dare shop for deeply discounted values on furniture in North Carolina: watch out. Comptroller Schaefer and his top cop, Mr. Tolliver, will put an end to your bargain-shopping.

And if Mr. Tolliver can figure a way to dun you for your Internet transactions, he'll be pounding at your door -- or seizing your computer -- before long.

What a dunderhead move by the comptroller. Mr. Tolliver is the wrong man for the wrong job.

He's a bull in a china shop, an old-boy state trooper who understands highway speed traps and drug-related car seizures but not complex tax laws and keeping the customer happy.

Sensitive matter

Revenue collection is a sensitive matter. High-handed collection techniques by the Internal Revenue Service nearly led to the abolition of that federal agency. The resulting uproar in Congress forced the agency to undertake a major rethinking of how it pursues tax payments from citizens.

The new IRS is kinder and gentler. But will the new Maryland comptroller's office instead become tougher and meaner?

Hiring Mr. Tolliver to go after tax evaders sends all the wrong signals. The last thing Maryland needs is a police-state mentality among its tax collectors. He's the last person you want thumbing through personal and corporate income-tax returns and sales-tax receipts.

Will Mr. Tolliver form his own police force to go after cigarette bootleggers and non-sales-tax-paying furniture purchasers?

Will the enforcers wear special, Schaefer-designed uniforms?

Will they carry guns to scare Marylanders into paying their taxes?

Probably not, but that could be the public perception of Mr. Schaefer's get-tough policy.

This appointment smacks of favoritism.

Mr. Tolliver was a mid-level state trooper, assigned to the governor's mansion when Mr. Schaefer became governor. He acted as Mr. Schaefer's chauffeur/bodyguard and as the driver for the governor's live-in partner, Hilda Mae Snoops. He did such a nifty job, Mr. Schaefer catapulted Mr. Tolliver to the very top of the Maryland State Police as superintendent.

It was a controversial appointment, thanks to Mr. Tolliver's penchant for stumbles, such as his Keystone Kops raid on Baltimore's strip-tease row, The Block, and his failure to address a budding sex-harassment scandal within the department.

But Mr. Tolliver landed on his feet when he was canned by Gov. Parris N. Glendening. He found a new home as the first outsider to run Anne Arundel County's police department. His penchant for seizing cars whenever minor amounts of drugs were found enraged civil libertarians.


He was kicked out of this job when Democrat Janet Owens won election in November. She didn't cotton to Mr. Tolliver recruiting police officers to pose in campaign photographs for incumbent Republican John Gary. She got the impression Mr. Tolliver was taking sides in that election. When she fired him, she spoke of restoring honesty and integrity.

Now he's the state's new tax enforcer, Comptroller Schaefer's hammer -- a politically connected ex-cop hired to play cop once again. Only this time he's chasing white-collar "criminals" who try to save some money by daring to go out of state for their home-furnishing purchases.

That's not acceptable in the Schaefer era of tax collection. He's ready to turn the bloodhounds loose.

Barry Rascovar is a deputy editorial page editor.

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