By Tom Ozimek
As the Internal Revenue Service seeks to bolster the ranks of its weapon-carrying Criminal Investigation unit, a former special agent described the inner workings of the division and said its key function is “to put the fear of God in people” and intimidate Americans into tax compliance.
Former IRS Special Agent Robert Nordlander told Accounting Today, in a wide-ranging interview published on Feb. 20, that while most Americans have a sense of what IRS tax audits look like, the work of the IRS Criminal Investigation (IRS-CI) unit is shrouded in some mystery.
Dubbed “gun-toters,” the armed special agents in the unit are responsible for enforcing those parts of tax code whose violations amount to crimes, he said. “When crimes are committed, the IRS-CI are the ones that actually enforce” the law, Nordlander said.
The IRS-CI examines potential criminal activity related to tax crimes and makes recommendations for prosecution to the tax division of the Department of Justice (DOJ).
There are now around 2,100 “gun-toters” in the criminal investigations division, and the IRS—flush with funds from a new cash injection—is looking to hire more special agents.
Carissa Cutrell, a public affairs officer at IRS-CI, told The Epoch Times in an emailed statement that the unit is hoping to hire between 300 and 350 special agents this year.
In the mid-1990s, the unit had around 3,500 special agents and Cutrell said they lose between 150 and 175 agents each year due to retirement and attrition.
‘Army of 87,000’ Tax Enforcers?
The idea of an “army of 87,000” new tax enforcement agents surged into the spotlight and became an internet meme after Republicans warned that the $80 billion in new IRS funding under the Inflation Reduction Act would squeeze ordinary Americans for “every last penny.”
“87,000 more IRS enforcers would make the IRS bigger than the Pentagon, the State Department, and Border Patrol COMBINED,” Republican National Committee (RNC) chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said in a tweet last summer, when the Inflation Reduction Act was passed and the IRS funding boost hit headlines.
President Joe Biden, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, former IRS commissioner Charles Rettig, and others have pushed back on such framing of the funding boost. They’ve insisted the money would be used to increase collections from high-earners and help with customer service, while Americans earning less than $400,000 wouldn’t face increased scrutiny from the agency.
Indeed, Yellen insisted that due to improved technology and customer service, people making less than $400,000 “will actually see a lower likelihood of audit.”
IRS officials have also said that whatever portion of the money would go toward new hires wouldn’t just be for tax enforcers.
Terry Lemons, IRS communications and liaison chief, said in an email that the new funding would be used to hire people across various departments. “In reality, the proposal would hire a variety of people across the agency to support not only enforcement but taxpayer service and technology improvements.”
Only part of the new funding will go to hire more special agents for the IRS-CI unit.
Some have questioned why IRS agents would need to carry firearms at all.
Fox News host Tucker Carlson, for example, on Aug. 4, 2022, led a segment on his show by expressing concern that the government is “treating the IRS as a military agency” and is “stockpiling” ammunition.
The National Rifle Association (NRA) also raised the question of whether IRS agents need to be armed, while pointing to a 2018 report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) showing that the IRS-CI had some 2,500 rounds of ammo per armed agent.
The IRS-CI itself says agents might need to respond to “life-threatening situations” on the job, be willing and able to participate in “dangerous assignments” and protect themselves and others from physical attacks, and be willing to use “deadly force.”
And while the NRA said it’s not “difficult to be cynical about all of these new, and possibly armed, IRS agents” given Biden’s anti-gun rhetoric, the gun lobby group conceded that a “segment of the IRS does need to be armed,” given that, historically, tax laws have been used to prosecute drug traffickers and other criminals and the work of IRS-CI agents can be dangerous.
Nordlander, a former IRS-CI special agent, said agents need to carry weapons because they never know what hazards lurk behind closed doors when executing warrants.
“You don’t know if the guy is a drug dealer that happens to just file false tax returns,” he said, recalling a case where someone arrested for tax crimes ended up also being wanted for armed robbery.
In some cases, white-collar criminals can be even more dangerous than gang members who may have been in and out of prisons and have had repeated run-ins with law enforcement, he said.
“These people have a lot to lose,” Nordlander said, suggesting that some white-collar criminals who are confronted by IRS agents can react unpredictably when they realize the jig is up, and their world comes crashing down.
“They know that they did the fraud, and once they do the fraud, they’re going to go away for many years and their livelihood’s over with.”
While some cases do have guns-drawn moments, Nordlander estimated that around 90 percent of a special agent’s time is spent poring over bank statements, interviewing people, and doing paperwork.
“Accounting nerds” with a gun and a badge is how he described most IRS-CI special agents.
‘Fear of God’
Nordlander said in the interview that the IRS-CI unit is selective in the cases it pursues and refers to the DOJ for prosecution.
Typically, the unit focuses its resources on cases where tax crimes occur over a period of years in order to build a solid case to present before a judge and secure a high rate of conviction.
In its annual report for 2022, the IRS-CI highlighted more than 2,550 investigations and a 90.6 percent conviction rate.
Special agents last year spent around 70 percent of their time investigating tax-related crimes like tax fraud and tax evasion, according to the IRS. The other 30 percent was spent on cases related to money laundering and drug trafficking.
“Our team follows the money,” IRS-CI chief Jim Lee said in a statement.
“We’ve been doing it for more than 100 years, and we’ve followed criminals into the dark web and now into the metaverse. Tax and other financial crimes know no borders. If you violate the law and end up in the crosshairs of an IRS-CI special agent, you are likely going to jail,” he added.
Nordlander said that IRS-CI special agents think long and hard whether they’d be able to convince a jury before referring a case for prosecution.
“At the end of the day, you want the judge to think this crime is so bad that there has to be active sentence time,” he said. “Otherwise, why do this? Because the job of the IRS-CI is really to put the fear of God in people,” he continued.
“They can only take so many cases, and so if everybody’s getting probation … you’re picking the wrong cases,” he said, adding that agents pursue cases that yield sentences of several years and that are “worthy of a press release.”
“So the whole general public knows ‘don’t do this or you go to prison,’ that’s what they’re looking for.”
Cutrell told The Epoch Times that media coverage doesn’t drive case selection but instead “plays an important part in the agency’s deterrence messaging once a case is complete.”
“IRS-CI’s mission includes not only investigating criminals for crimes they’ve committed, but also deterring potential criminals from committing future crimes,” she said.
Reuters contributed to this report.