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LOCAL HERO

Old Debt Pays Off for Retired IRS Agent

November 13, 1996|LIBBY SLATE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

This is a story about a good deed that took place three decades ago but could not be admitted until years later.

Huntington Beach resident Stan Cohen's description of his unusual action has won first place in the 1996 Legacies Contest, an essay competition for people 60 and older, created in 1991 by the late New York philanthropist Maury Leibovitz. Cohen wrote about an act of compassion he had performed on the job years earlier.

At the time, Cohen was a collection officer for the Internal Revenue Service. In the mid-1960s, early in his IRS career, he was sent to retrieve $25,000 from a Santa Ana man who had received an overpayment of his tax refund. Hector Fernandez had been mistakenly sent a check for $25,200 instead of $200.

When Cohen went to collect, he discovered a frail 77-year-old widower in a wheelchair who lived in a decrepit shack.

Fernandez explained that he had twice mailed the overpayment back to the IRS, only to have it returned to him. He then decided to spend it on a dream. He took a round-the-world cruise in first class on the Queen Elizabeth II. Now, only $7,892 of the IRS money remained. "I'm ready, Mr. Cohen," Fernandez said, weeping, offering his outstretched arms to be handcuffed. "Take me to jail."

Cohen was supposed to take the remaining funds and attach a lien to the man's property, wages or anything else of value. Instead, he took back his business card. "If anyone should ask," he told Fernandez, "you never saw me or heard from the IRS." Back in his office, he wrote, "UTL--Unable to Locate" and closed the file.

After 25 years with the IRS, Cohen retired in 1989 as assistant chief of the Criminal Investigation Division in Laguna Niguel. He now writes a column for the weekly Huntington Beach Independent newspaper. A reader suggested he submit an essay about an IRS experience to the 1996 local Legacies contest, and the long-forgotten incident--well past the statute of limitations for prosecution--popped into Cohen's mind. Cohen, 64, took first place locally but had no idea there was a national competition until he received a phone call informing him that he had won. He received $5,000, besting 2,000 other entries.

"If you think about it, I took $25,000 of the taxpayers' money and gave it to Fernandez," Cohen acknowledges, sitting in the den of the home he has shared for 30 years with his wife, Pat, a genetic researcher at UC Irvine. "But I was upset, teary-eyed. I remember the look on his face as he was telling me about his trip. I thought, 'How in the world can I collect money from this man?'

"And he had a suitcase packed. He was taking the [memorabilia] to jail so he could remember the good times. I thought, 'My God, how can a human being treat another human being that way?' "

There were other incidents. When a bakery owner was supposed to give Cohen a cashier's check for $20,000 by noon on a Friday or have his shop padlocked, Cohen allowed the man to give him a business check good for the funds the following Monday. On Monday morning, Cohen personally took the check to the bank and converted it to a cashier's check.

"Most IRS agents are good, nice people," he says. "If you put the average employee in my position, they would have done the same thing. I'm certain there are lots of stories like that, that people won't admit to."

Cohen's IRS career was not planned. After service in the Korean War, in which he won a Purple Heart for a head wound that still affects his facial muscles and hearing, he attended Emerson College in Boston. Returning to New York, he was hired by the FBI to infiltrate the American Communist Party. Four years later, his cover was discovered--he never learned how--and he asked to be sent out of town. The FBI found him the IRS job in Los Angeles, where he moved in 1963. He wed Pat in 1966; they have two children, a son and a daughter.

Cohen's recognition for his good deed did not surprise former colleague Larry Riezenman, a revenue officer in special procedures. "Stan has always drawn a human and humane character for the sometimes onerous task of collecting," he says. "He's a compassionate, warm human being.

"He's always been there for everyone who knows him, both as an empathetic listener and a person who gets involved in other people's difficulties as much as he can."

Says Larry Ross, a North Hollywood graphic designer who has been Cohen's friend for 55 years: "With some guys, they get that IRS badge and it goes to their head. Stan never let that happen. He's a regular guy."

The regular guy yearns for grandchildren, serves on the Huntington Beach Citizens Advisory Board and patrols the streets looking for crime as a member of the Retired Seniors Volunteer Program. "I'm a very liberal person," he says of the long-ago IRS incident. "If I had it to do over again, I would."

* This occasional column tells the stories of the unsung heroes of Southern California, people of all ages and vocations and avocations, whose dedication as volunteers or on the job makes life better for the people they encounter. Reader suggestions are welcome and may be sent to Local Hero Editor, Life & Style, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053.

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