A resigned smile crossed Kay Council's face as she 8. steered her car into the garage of the new brick A split-level house just outside Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Her husband, Alex, had every light blazing inside and out. If I could just teach him to turn some lights off, she thought as she climbed the stairway to the upper level.
Alex didn't seem to be inside. It was only 9 p.m., a warm June evening. Maybe he was at one of the unfinished homes in the housing development they were building nearby. She wandered into the kitchen. Sure, there's a note. On her desk lay a sheet of yellow legal paper with words in Alex's familiar hand.
"My dearest Kay,
"I have taken my life in order to provide capital for you. The IRS and its liens which have been taken against our property illegally by a runaway agency of our government have dried up all sources of credit for us. So I have made the only decision I can. It's purely a business decision. I hope you can understand that. I love you completely,
Her eyesight was blurring by the time she read the matter-of-fact postscript: "You will find my body on the north side of the house." For a few desperate, hopeful seconds Kay thought it might be one of Alex's practical jokes, and he would jump out from hiding and surprise her.
"Alex?" There was a sliver of that hope when she called his name the first time. "Alex!" She began shouting his name. No one answered.
She could not bring herself to look outside and confirm the note. She slumped in a kitchen chair and in a daze began punching out phone calls to relatives. Alex's brother arrived a short time later with a deputy sheriff. They found 49-year-old Alex sprawled near a backyard woodpile, dead of a bullet to the head. A pistol lay by his hand.
mistakes, delays, and bureaucratic stonewalling that led Alex Council to take his own life are part of a pattern. A General Accounting Office investigation recently revealed that the IRS wrongly assessed penalties against 1.5 million taxpayers in 1988 alone. The GAO found that almost half of IRS mail to taxpayers contained incorrect information. Another IRS probe found that 2 million documents, including tax returns, could not be found in the agency's files.
Unlike criminal defendants, taxpayers faced with IRS penalties must assume the legal burden of proving their innocence. Rather than challenge the nation's most powerful law enforcement agency, even when its assessments are questionable or in error, most taxpayers simply choose to pay up and avoid drawing further attention to themselves. Of $15.3 billion in additional taxes and penalties wrung out of taxpayers in 1989, a Money magazine analysis estimates, $7 billion was wrongly collected based on erroneous calculations.
For those who do challenge IRS inefficiency and arrogance, there looms a stark and bitter truth: Even if they win in court, they can often expect to spend more in legal fees than the amount of tax at issue. Beating the IRS usually amounts to a Pyrrhic victory at best.
With Congress exerting intense pressure on the IRS to shake down taxpayers for every available dollar to help reduce the budget deficit, the story of Alex Council's fight for financial survival, and his eventual death, becomes a cautionary tale of what can happen to men and women of principle.
Alex met Kay in 1971 in Greensboro, North Carolina, at the mortgage insurance company where they both worked, he as vice president, she as the data processing manager. Both had two children and were in the throes of divorce. Friendship grew into love. After Alex moved to San Francisco to become vice president of a new mortgage insurance company in 1973, Kay soon followed, and a few months later they married.
Alex had an infectious spirit of adventure. On their honeymoon he took Kay to Alaska to explore the wilderness. He convinced her to ride gliders and hot-air balloons, and drove her 1,800 miles through the Yucatan peninsula to climb every ancient ruin they encountered.
A voracious reader, Alex had studied every book written by Ayn Rand and admired her strong, principled characters. He took classes in American constitutional law for the sheer enjoyment of reading, and he lived his life according to the dictates of his well-defined, individualistic conscience.