PALMDALE — Five Antelope Valley residents recounted tax-related horror stories Thursday night at a public hearing modeled after last fall's landmark sessions by the U.S. Senate.
"Don't make me feel like a crook. That's exactly what I felt like," said Alessandra Neighbert, a 32-year-old Pearblossom resident who said she and her husband were intimidated by an Internal Revenue Service auditor into paying an unjust $1,000 penalty.
Jerry Lewis, 51, of Lancaster painted a similar picture. According to U.S. Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon's (R-Santa Clarita) office, a mix-up involving Lewis' 1993 income tax refund led to his entire family being detained and questioned by federal investigators in Los Angeles, who suspected them of illegally cashing an initial refund check and requesting a duplicate.
The investigation was later closed, and no charges were filed.
During a 2 1/2-hour interview, "my wife was convinced we were going to jail, that we were not going home," Lewis said.
The Palmdale hearing, which will be followed by a similar one Thursday night in Santa Clarita, was conceived by McKeon as a smaller version of the Senate sessions. He said many of his congressional colleagues are planning similar hearings throughout the country.
The stories told Thursday did not approach the gravity of those told in Washington, but as he listened, McKeon expressed amazement.
"This shouldn't be happening in America," he said, resting his head in his hands. "My general attitude towards things is, you have to see the humor or else you feel like you're going off an edge of a cliff. But there's very little humor here."
The crowd of about 80 at Palmdale City Hall shared McKeon's reaction, alternately muttering, chortling and sighing during the two-hour hearing, which was split between comments from angry taxpayers and two local experts in the tax code.
One expert, Lancaster tax attorney Bill Walsh, said that while the cases presented Thursday may not reflect the average person's experience, "it's a frightening trend."
During those fall sessions in Washington, taxpayers from across the nation related their struggles with the IRS, many breaking into tears as they told of alleged abuses such as the use of illegal tax-collection quotas and harassment of lower-income taxpayers.
In response to those testimonials, acting IRS Commissioner Michael P. Dolan issued a landmark apology, and the agency initiated monthly "problem-solving days" to give taxpayers a chance to remedy their tax headaches by visiting 33 nationwide offices specially opened on Saturdays.
Also in response to the televised Senate hearings, the U.S. House of Representatives moved to overhaul the IRS for the first time in decades, approving a bill to establish an oversight board.