Val Oveson has finally found himself in Washington, D.C.
But the former Utah state auditor, lieutenant governor and Tax Commission chairman didn't get there as he and everyone else expected. He didn't win election to the U.S. House or Senate.He took the job of the nation's No. 1 taxpayer advocate.
That's right. If you don't like how the IRS is treating you, give ol' Val a call.
Actually, it's not as simple as that. And Oveson, who has been on the job for a couple of weeks as the IRS's taxpayer advocate, really doesn't want a lot of telephone calls, even from old friends in Utah.
"In very few cases could I help (a disgruntled) taxpayer directly. But I would gladly refer them to the two local taxpayer advocates in Utah," says Oveson.
Once the golden boy of Utah politics - elected state auditor at age 28 in 1980, lieutenant governor at 32 in 1984 - Oveson turned down several chances to run for higher office.
He actually was in the 1992 3rd Congressional District race - for two weeks. After a "draft Val" meeting was held with three other GOP 3rd District candidates, Oveson jumped into the U.S. House race against then-Democratic Rep. Bill Orton. But his wife reportedly didn't want the congressional life, there were still four kids at home and Oveson retired after one of the shortest front-runner U.S. House races on record.
"We love Virginia, both my wife and I," Oveson said last week from his new home. "I commute into D.C. But where we're going to buy a house is beautiful countryside. And my two teenage boys are excited about" attending a new school. Two older daughters remain in the Oveson Bountiful home, attending college and working, he said.
Oveson said the opportunity to be the IRS's first taxpayer advocate with some real power was too great to pass up. Oveson's name was submitted "by a friend in the California state government's revenue department."
Over the past six years Oveson has been making a name for himself nationally on the Utah State Tax Commission. As chairman, he led a number of local battles, including seeking a workable solution to last year's messy "WilTel" property tax decision.
As most tax commissioners know, you can only serve so long before you start making some powerful enemies. Oveson said he didn't leave for the IRS job because of that, but being a state commissioner is trying and he was wearing down.
He applied for the job last spring. Then Congress, in overhauling this summer how the IRS works, basically recreated the taxpayer advocate job, says Oveson.
The new advocate is his own man. By law, he makes independent reports to Congress twice a year. "My bosses, the Treasury secretary and IRS commissioner, look at the reports. But they can't edit them. I write them myself."
Also, local and regional taxpayer advocates - the people charged with taking the taxpayers' side in disagreements with the IRS - starting Oct. 1 report directly to Oveson. Before they reported up the line to IRS bureaucrats who could stifle complaints or aggressive taxpayer advocacy.
Oveson and his staff can't change the tax the IRS says you owe. "If you owe the tax, you have to pay it."
"But we can, do and will, deal with penalties." For example, if someone was moving around, wasn't notified he owed some back taxes and the IRS slapped hundreds, or even thousands of dollars on in fines and penalties, the taxpayer could be stuck. Now Oveson, in setting up adequate repayment schedules, can waive some or all of those penalties.
"If you call me about a problem in how the (taxpayer advocate) system works, I can help you directly. But if you call about an individual, personal problem with the IRS, well, I have to refer you to your local taxpayer advocate," says Oveson, a CPA who was once described by a political opponent as looking like a Norse god and auditing like a junkyard dog.
Oveson said he promised IRS Commissioner Charles Rossotti five years of work.
"I'm an executive appointee. I'm not a political appointee, not confirmed by the Senate or serve in one administration. I may stay longer (than five years). But someday my wife and I plan on returning to Utah."
Any political campaigns ahead? Oveson won't say. He's in a nonpartisan, professional post now and isn't talking politics.
"In fact, I don't even have an opinion" on whether the IRS should be junked completely, the federal government going to a national sales tax or some other kind of tax besides an income tax.
"I just take the tax code as written, make appropriate suggestions (to make it fairer to taxpayers), and try to help taxpayers with it," says Oveson.