- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The head of the IRS Office of Professional Responsibility testified this year that she and her staff must be “impeccable,” just weeks before she sent a top aide whose law license had been suspended to lecture tax lawyers on ethics.

The lawyer, Takisha McGee, is facing disbarment proceedings in the D.C. Court of Appeals, and that’s put a sharp focus on OPR Director Karen Hawkins, who has used her office to target tax lawyers whose law licenses have been suspended.

Ms. Hawkins did not respond to questions from The Washington Times seeking comment on the pending proceedings, and IRS spokesman Mark Hanson declined to get into specifics of the case, though he said the agency “expects all of its employees to follow and maintain high standards.”

But Tom Fitton, executive director of the conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch, which is suing the Internal Revenue Service in an unrelated scandal, said having a lawyer with a suspended license lecturing other lawyers on ethics “undermines public confidence in the agency.”

“The D.C. Bar doesn’t take these actions lightly unless there’s something substantive there, but at the least, while everything is hashed out, prudence would dictate that she not be sent to lecture other lawyers on ethics,” Mr. Fitton said.

Ms. McGee’s license was suspended in March, pending the outcome of her disbarment case. Even after that, the IRS dispatched her to Orlando, Fla., to give a speech, titled “When your license to practice before the IRS is on the line,” to the tax section of the Florida bar.

The D.C. Court of Appeals’ board on professional responsibility issued a report in December concluding that there was “clear and convincing” evidence Ms. McGee misappropriated client settlements funds and provided false testimony about her work in a personal-injury case before she joined the IRS in 2008.

Ms. McGee told The Times in an interview last week that she’s fighting the disbarment recommendation, and said inexperience and personal problems played roles in her own troubles. She said she now has valuable insight into what tax professionals confront when they’re facing OPR scrutiny.

“I was a new attorney, and I had just started out,” she said, adding that she acted without malice in what she deemed a “one-time mistake.”

She noted that she’s fully informed her supervisors about the investigation, which began in 2010.

Her boss, Ms. Hawkins, has made no secret of her insistence for high ethical standards both in the tax profession and her own office

“I expect nothing but absolute integrity out of both myself and my staff because I just don’t see how you can justify disciplining others for lack of integrity if you aren’t demonstrating integrity-plus on your own behalf,” she said in a hearing during a union grievance earlier this year.

During a speech in April at New York University, Ms. Hawkins provided a cautionary story about a lawyer who had stolen money from his daughter’s trust fund.

The attorney was convicted of a felony, she said, but argued against being disbarred by OPR from practicing before the IRS because his violation had nothing to do with tax matters, and he was doing work he wasn’t accustomed to doing.

But Ms. Hawkins said incompetence on a matter unrelated to IRS work was no excuse.

She cited her authority to make determinations about a “practitioner’s fitness and the likelihood that their misconduct in one environment is going to translate over into another environment.”

Mr. Hanson, the IRS spokesman, said OPR’s job is to try to make sure that tax preparers and others involved in the tax system “adhere to professional standards and follow the law.”

“OPR operates in the context of protecting the legal rights, including due process, of anyone who falls under its jurisdiction,” he said.

He also said that applies to agency employees who “are also afforded due-process rights under agency rules and procedures.”

• Jim McElhatton can be reached at jmcelhatton@washingtontimes.com.

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