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National Taxpayer Advocate Nina Olson says farewell today

National Taxpayer Advocated Nina E. Olson today departs the Internal Revenue Service watchdog office she's held since 2001. An acting advocate, Bridget Roberts, has been named until the position is filled full-time.

Nina Olson National Taxpayer Advocate testifying before Congressional committee
National Taxpayer Advocate Nina E. Olson makes a point, here expressing her concerns about private tax debt collection (you can watch her full testimony at the official video), during one of her many Capitol Hill appearances during her almost two decades as an IRS watchdog.

Goodbye and thanks to Nina E. Olson. Today, July 31, is her last as National Taxpayer Advocate (NTA).

She is retiring from government service as of today, wrapping up nearly 19 years as the Internal Revenue Service's independent internal watchdog.

During her tenure, the federal tax agency implemented hundreds of recommendations she made for administrative change, many in response to her annual, and usually growing, list of problems taxpayers face in fulfilling their annual filing obligations.

More ups than downs: In addition, Congress took her annual recommendations — she released her last one on June 20 — and turned many of them into legislation. Fifteen eventually were signed into law.

The latest to include Taxpayer Advocate ideas was the IRS reform bill, known as the Taxpayer First Act, that was enacted earlier this month and makes significant changes in the way the IRS operates.

Another highlight of Olson's years of service came in June 2014, when the IRS adopted her long-advocated Taxpayer Bill of Rights.

As for her biggest regret, Olson cites the IRS nonprofit application scandal.

The Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration reported in 2013 that the IRS had given greater scrutiny to conservative organizations, many associated with the Tea Party movement that came to the fore in the 2010 election, applying for tax-exempt 501(c)(4) status. Under that classification, groups can conduct political activity as long as it isn't their primary focus.

Olson said she wished she had noticed the IRS' targeting, which later was found to also apply to some liberal-leaning organizations, sooner.

Team taxpayer, not IRS: Olson offered a valedictory of her service as NTA during her address June 20 at New York University's annual Tax Controversy Forum,

Although the Advocate's office officially is part of the IRS, she talked about the importance of being willing to be an independent and open critic of tax practices she viewed as detrimental to taxpayers.

"Every single commissioner I have worked for has said to me in one form or another, 'You are not being a team player, Nina.' And my response to that has been, 'I am a team player. The NTA is a team player. I just have a different role to play on that team. My role is not to be a shill for the IRS,'" she said, as reported by Accounting Today.

National Taxpayer Advocate Nina Olson speaking at the 2010 TAS Technical Training Symposium
Olson addressing a Taxpayer Advocate Service training session.

Taxpayer-focused work to continue: Olson may be retiring as NTA, but in a speech last month at New York University's annual Tax Controversy Forum she said she doesn't plan to stop fighting for taxpayers.

She recently formed a taxpayer advocacy nonprofit and said she plans to start a mobile van service that will visit taxpayers in remote areas of the country, particularly hard-hit disaster areas where people are looking for tax relief.

Olson also noted that since she's now been sworn in to the Supreme Court bar, "I would think there will be some amicus briefs coming down." 

You also can read Olson's own thoughts on her role and the Taxpayer Advocate Service (TAS) in her retirement announcement post at the NTA Blog.

Awaiting NTA replacement: The IRS has not named a permanent replacement for Olson.

However, IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig has tapped Bridget Roberts as Olson's acting successor, filling in starting tomorrow until the new NTA is named.

Even the most dedicated tax geeks might be asking, "Who?"

Roberts, however, has been part of the Taxpayer Advocate Service for around fifteen years.

Her LinkedIn page notes that she served as a TAS attorney adviser at TAS for almost four years, from April 2004 until December 2007. During that time, according to a brief bio on the Accounting Continuing Professional Education Network, before leaving to join the Senate Finance Committee.

As a staffer with the Senate tax-writing panel from January 2008 to December 2009, Roberts helped lead staff efforts on the Affordable Care Act, employee benefits and executive compensation.

Roberts returned to TAS in January 2010 as deputy executive director and in August 2017 was named Deputy National Taxpayer Advocate.

The Georgetown (LLM) and Villanova (JD) law school alumna has held her post as second in the TAS organization chart since August 2017.

Rettig acknowledged Roberts' tenure with TAS in appointing her to the role as acting chief of the oversight group.

"Bridget has a great background and is well-positioned to lead TAS as efforts to select the next National Taxpayer Advocate continue," Rettig said in a July 23 statement announcing the placeholder position change.

Olson also expressed her support of Roberts' selection to temporarily lead TAS.

"I hired Bridget straight out of law school, and hiring her is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made," Olson said per a Tax Notes report. "I am confident that she will continue to lead and inspire this organization to always provide the best advocacy possible for each and every taxpayer."

There's no word on the process to name a permanent National Taxpayer Advocate.

But when that person does take up the role, Olson has some advice.

"The next person may have a different style," she told Bloomberg Tax in a sit-down interview. "But they will still need to advocate zealously."

My take: Let me close this post with a quick personal note.

I was privileged to serve a term on the volunteer Taxpayer Advocacy Panel, one of my years as chair of my region's group. As such, I got to work a bit more with Ms. Olson.

Her commitment and dedication to finding ways to make taxes easier and more approachable for taxpayers was always evident. She was/is focused on that goal and she demanded it from everyone around her, from her staff to us volunteers.

While she might have irritated some, from IRS commissioners and beyond, no one can doubt her sincerity in working for taxpayers' needs.

Thanks, Ms. Olson, for your years of work. I look forward to seeing what you accomplish in the taxpayer services area going forward.

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