TOP TEN FUNKIEST ACCOUNTING MOMENTS
By Peter G. Masullo, CPA
Accountants have a reputation for being boring. I’ve become accustomed to being the butt of everyone’s jokes, such as:
What do accountants use for birth control? Answer: Their personalities!
Perhaps we deserve our reputation. I suppose you have to be a little weird to find the tax law interesting. But it’s not all tedious number-crunching. Sometimes, we are overcome with excitement in our every day accounting practices, and some of us have even developed a keen sense of humor. To prove it, I have compiled the following list of 10 of the “funkiest” moments in my career as a tax accountant/attorney. I use the word “funk” because not all of the following are humorous. Some are embarrassing moments, and some are just plain weird. All are true stories, illustrating the old cliche about fact being stranger than fiction.
Scary Tax Moments
*The scariest tax moment of all time was when I was accused of harassing two IRS agents by use of what they called “abusive language.” In truth, I displayed the patience of a saint by exercising restraint. The real scary part was their abuse of power. I reiterate the fact that I said nothing abusive. I merely pointed to the door as I suggested their souls belonged in the company of Lucifer. The full story of this escapade appeared in the first issue of this newsletter. Let me know if you would like a copy.
*Many years ago, during the busiest part of tax season, I returned to my office in the early evening to find a stack of telephone messages. Three of them were from Mr. Robinson. It was late, and I was tired, so I put off the messages until the next day.
I don’t remember exactly what I was working on, but I recall the next morning as being very hectic. By mid-morning, I had not yet returned Mr. Robinson’s calls. My secretary at the time, Patty B. (one of the best and nicest people I have ever had the pleasure of working with) interrupted me in an abrupt manner, “Mr. Robinson is here to see you now.” I exclaimed, “I can’t see Mr. Robinson now!” I started to complain and explain that I was under pressure and Mr. Robinson would just have to wait. In a voice unlike her usual soft-spoken tone, Patty again cut me off, “I think you better see Mr. Robinson right now!” I sensed trouble and immediately jumped away from my desk to greet Mr. Robinson.
I found him in the front office. He was thumbing through documents in his file with his left hand. In his right hand was a sawed-off shotgun. He greeted me with a smile and assured me the gun I was staring at was not meant to scare anyone. I couldn’t imagine what else he could possibly be doing with this illegal weapon. Surely, he wasn’t going hunting in the middle of NYC. So I wisely decided to show Mr. Robinson the utmost degree of respect.
Somehow, I managed to keep my cool on the outside, although I was trembling on the inside. I calmly explained the reason his tax returns were not completed was because he had not provided all of his W2 forms. With this understanding, Mr. Robinson left in peace. I also left because I had to change my underwear. Since then, I return all of my calls as promptly as I can.
Stupid Employee Moments
*In the old days, the most advanced piece of technology in my office was a color TV set. I liked to watch the news when working late, but I used it mainly to entertain my young daughters on their way to and from school. One morning, I returned to my office unexpectedly. There was my trusted assistant, Joe, lounging in my chair with his feet on my desk. He was so preoccupied with the TV that he didn’t even notice my entry. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry when I heard him exclaim, “OOH! I love Fred duh Flintstone!”
*After the incident with the “Flintstones,” I decided I should be more selective in my hiring practices. Thus, I devised a form letter to test an applicant’s dictation & typing skills. One applicant interpreted the heading, which was supposed to read “Mr./ Ms.,” as “Mr. Slashmiss.” To make matters worse, this applicant was angry with me because she thought this was a trick question.
*Jenise was my secretary for about a year and was thoroughly familiar with my clients and office procedures. To my knowledge, she had never worked in a doctor’s office. One day, she must have been watching something on TV, or smoking something, or both. A young, attractive client came into the office to have her taxes done. Jenise told her, “Take your clothes off and have a seat in the waiting room. Mr. Masullo will be right with you.”
Foot In Mouth Disease
*On March 7, 2000, I took a call from a gentleman in Springfield, MO who was very concerned because he hadn’t filed his tax returns for the past 3 years. There is usually a reason why people fall behind in their taxes, so my first advice was to inform him about relief from penalties in the case of extreme hardship. He told me he suffered from clinical depression. In my exuberance I exclaimed, “That’s great!”
I immediately recognized my mistake. After a short pause, and a bit of stuttering I explained, “No, that’s not really great that you suffer from depression. What I meant to say was that you have a great case for reduction of the penalties.” He understood and we both laughed.
*At the end of a lengthy session of setting up the books for a promising internet start-up company, I was dragged into a meeting with the company’s management. They hit me with complicated legal and tax questions about agreements that would have taken me a day just to read. I was eager to impress my new clients but I didn’t want to say anything stupid about matters I was not prepared for. I explained, “I’ll be glad to take a look at these agreements. However, right now, it’s all Greek to me.” The young CFO pointed to the other officer sitting across the table and said, “He’s Greek!” Again, I stuttered, “Oh! Ah! Um!... I meant Chinese!” They never called me back for my opinion on the contracts. In fact, I haven’t heard from them since.
Dumb IRS Moments
*You might think there is nothing funny about falling behind on your taxes. That is usually true, for it can be a painful and nerve-racking experience. However, in order to maintain sanity (we can argue about my level of sanity at another time), it is helpful for me to find amusement in some of the daily situations that others might classify as tedium.
I once agreed to represent a small corporation that hadn’t filed taxes in five or six years. IRS had just become aware of their existence and was pressing the owner for the back taxes. In those days, I was a bit more timid before IRS. As a newcomer to the field, I was inexperienced and gullible. When I first contacted the IRS agent I expected he would be sympathetic to my client’s sad story. Instead, I was shocked when he showed no mercy and demanded that I complete all five years’ returns by the end of the week. I tried to explain this would be an impossible feat. Even if I had all the required information I couldn’t physically complete all five years within the next couple of days. The agent didn’t want to hear it. “You’ve had five years! I will not tolerate any further delay!” He further blasted, “You finish those returns by Friday or I’ll hit you with a summons and make you finish them!” I was dumbfounded. Could he really do that?
For the next two days I labored tirelessly in an attempt to achieve the impossible. I didn’t mind the work, but I resented not being able to sleep because of the unnecessary worry and pressure. It became clear that an army of accountants could not finish the project on time so I took a break. That’s when it dawned on me. He can’t subpoena me. What could I possibly have done to deserve a summons?
The next day, I got up the nerve to confront the agent with this question. I accidentally struck his nerve when I mentioned that I felt “harassed.” The agent immediately became my best friend. In a completely different tone he explained, “That was a misunderstanding. What I said was that you could save me the trouble of serving a subpoena upon the corporation for the production of records if you would be kind enough to give me a time frame for completion of the corporate tax returns...”
*Another time, in the days before IRS was so organized (sarcasm), I had a client whose return was being audited by Mr. Green from the downtown NYC IRS office. I tried writing to Mr. Green to request a conference. A couple of letters and a couple of months went by but there was no response from IRS. I finally was able to contact Mr. Green by telephone. You’d know what a difficult task this is if you ever tried to call IRS on the phone. This was especially difficult in the old days. Anyway, Mr. Green agreed to meet with me to discuss my case. Only problem was that his schedule was booked for the next month or so. After that was vacation. Then, after that he had to undergo a training program. I was certain I would forget most of what my case was about by the time our meeting arrived, but I was happy that justice would be served and my client would eventually get a fair hearing.
I had plenty of time to refresh my memory. On the date of our appointment I was sitting in the IRS waiting area for a period that felt like hours. Finally, Mr. Green came out to greet me. He immediately apologized and confessed that he had lost my client’s case file. I experienced another one of those moments when I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. I think at that point I was probably closer to the latter, and with a tear in my eye, I begged him to continue the conference anyway. We could use copies of documents from my files.
He must have seen the tears and felt sorry for me, because he reluctantly agreed to hear me out. The reason for much of the mix-up became clear as soon as I took out the audit report. It was prepared by Charles D. Green. However, I was talking with Charles C. Green. After all these months I was dealing with the wrong Mr. Green. Apparently, the real Mr. Green was transferred to another district.
We never were able to track down the case file, but this story had a happy ending. IRS was even more concerned with this botched up job than I was for my part in it. For whatever reason, we reached an amicable compromise that was very favorable for my client.
*I hope that by now, I’ve become a little “jaded,” but in those early days you could tell me anything and I’d believe it. Remember the disco scene? I don’t! I was too busy working, and besides, I don’t dance. But I had a client who was a waiter in a very upscale Manhattan disco, akin to the infamous “Studio 54.” He boasted to me about the “Rolex” watch he was wearing. He claimed that a patron/friend had given it to him the night before as a tip. “Wow!” I thought to myself. The tips most waiters make in a year are less then the value of that watch. My immediate recommendation was to increase the amount of tip income being reported. Unbeknownst to me, my waiter friend was pushing something other than food, drink, and good times at the uptown disco.
A few weeks later I received a surprise visit from three beautiful, scantily-clad women. Despite my gullible nature, I knew something was up when they started asking personal questions. In my profession, it is not a normal, every day occurrence to be interrogated by attractive women. In fact, I can count the number of times this has happened to me on one finger. In jest, I asked, “What are you, some kind of cop or something?” The leader replied in the affirmative and showed me her badge and ID. They were Special Agents from the Treasury Department. The leader then assured me, in a jovial, yet stern manner, that she had the wherewithal and weaponry to enforce my cooperation, should that become necessary. My confident “rap” turned into that familiar stutter. I was blindsided and intimidated by the fact that I was being interrogated as if I were guilty of something. It is unfair when the government uses all three of “Charlie’s Angels” to elicit privileged information from ordinary accountants. The fact that they had to sneak up on me like this has left a lasting impact on my psyche. To this day, I cringe and become speechless every time an attractive woman comes into my office. It’s bad enough being afraid of heights. Now, I have IRS to thank for this unhealthy fear of women.