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Ed Langer’s Secret Hell
By Chuck Nowlen
Copyright 2002, (Milwaukee) Shepherd Express
Five years later, the whole thing still galls him. It pumps through his veins like adrenaline. Sometimes, he actually feels like he could explode.
“WRITE … THIS … DOWN!!” a hyper Ed Langer orders at the beginning of a recent Shepherd Express interview in the kitchen of his Hales Corners home. “I WILL NOT IDENTIFY ANY TAXPAYER. AND I WILL NOT IDENTIFY ANY INDIVIDUAL IN THE OFFICE OF CHIEF COUNSEL OF THE IRS.”
As the whistleblowing former No. 1 criminal attorney in the Milwaukee IRS District Office, Langer has a lot to worry about these days: legal reprisals from his former employer, for example, which fired him in 1998 after a nasty – and still-simmering – internal fight. The dispute, he insists, was linked to his challenge of “blatant” targeting of African Americans in local IRS prosecutions from 1992 to 1995.
During that time, Langer discovered, African Americans accounted for a whopping 60% of all Milwaukee IRS criminal grand jury referrals, which involve cases from all over Wisconsin, as well as the city. The percentage was about 12 times the black share of Wisconsin’s population.
The African-American cases also overwhelmingly involved taxpayers who had claimed the Earned Income Credit (EIC) – which many Milwaukee advocates have long urged low-income people to take advantage of if they qualify.
Langer remains convinced that the prosecution feeding frenzy was the product of something he came to know all too well during his time at the Milwaukee IRS office: a bureaucratic blood lust for easy – and career-boosting – prosecutions of taxpayers who lacked the financial wherewithal to fight back.
“My approach with the EIC would have been to get all those smartasses out there on the street who tell people (for a fee): ‘Hey, I can get you a lot of money based on the Earned Income Credit,’ and then they let the taxpayer hang,” he says. “But instead, the Milwaukee IRS office just decided to go after a lot of the regular people who claimed the Earned Income Credit. … As one (IRS) special agent said, this was a great opportunity for the IRS to open and close a lot of cases and make their (enforcement) statistics look good.”
What’s more, in at least two of the 1992-95 cases, the alleged offenders were “some of the most prominent African-American political leaders in Milwaukee,” Langer says. “If you knew the names, you would go, ‘Oh, my God!’”
Langer suspects that those cases were naked political back-stabbing. He steadfastly refuses to release the names, however, fearing an IRS ethics prosecution under the agency’s privacy regulations.
Meanwhile, if even half of Ed Langer’s story is true, we ALL have a lot to fear from the IRS – and not just because April 15 is only six months away.
“The IRS is SO dysfunctional,” Ed Langer insists later in the interview, describing a scalp-driven, close-the-ranks, perpetual-reorganization bureaucracy that treats wave-makers like suspected terrorists. “Most people there don’t give a rat’s ass about their work. But I CARED. …”
Now Langer – who spent 18 years at the Milwaukee IRS office, earning glowing job evaluations every year until the dispute – shakes his head slowly: “ … And this can be VERY hazardous to one’s health – as I certainly found out.”
The strange vibes in the cubicles, the double-speak job-evaluation demerits – some for merely mentioning office diversity in informal chats, one for tending a colleague’s child at work in an emergency: It all got to Ed Langer after a while. He had been, after all, a golden child in the Milwaukee IRS office for almost two decades.
And, eventually, he reached the breaking point: Shortly before his firing, Langer suffered what he calls an harassment-fueled “nervous breakdown” – a severe, suicide-watch depression that he’s still fighting in some ways today. He hasn’t had a full-time job since his last day at the office: December 17, 1998.
“One prominent tax attorney in town – all of a sudden, he can’t have lunch with me anymore,” Langer says, his voice rising and his eyes now saucer-wide behind wire-rimmed glasses. “AND THIS IS SOMEBODY I’VE KNOWN SINCE 1980!
“Another guy, he told me he couldn’t have lunch because he heard something was up with me. Yet another said, ‘Forget getting a job, Ed. No major law firm, no major accounting firm and no major agency would ever hire a whistleblower.’”
Why should you care about Ed Langer?
Because, according to local experts, if you work in a bureaucracy or have important business with one, there but for the grace of God go you.
“Because bureaucracies are by nature self-protecting, they are not often willing to admit whatever things might occur inside that a whistleblower might bring to light that could make the bureaucracy look bad,” notes UW-Milwaukee political scientist Rob Weber.
Adds UW-M governmental affairs professor Mordecai Lee, a former state legislator who was a major player in Wisconsin’s whistleblower-protection laws: “The typical bureaucratic reaction to a whistleblower is to be defensive – to turn the whistleblower into the culprit rather than the victim. And there can be all sorts of moves by the agency to protect itself.
“What’s interesting is that even with all the legal protections in the world, the role of the whistleblower can still be an extremely stressful role for people to play. In some cases, being a whistleblower ends up being the pivotal event in that person’s life. Sometimes the rest of their careers can even be negative as a result.”
Langer, meanwhile, admits that the racial targeting he documented apparently has ended in the local IRS office. But – a recent reorganization notwithstanding – the basic bureaucratic character of the agency remains unchanged, he insists, meaning that the Milwaukee IRS is still ripe at its core for similar shenanigans at any time.
“It’s been five years since the IRS trained its sights on me, but, personally, I really wonder if there’s anybody left over there who will stand up against all the absurd, neurotic nonsense that goes on,” he says. “Since I left, I’ve seen others in the office who used to stand up. But, all of a sudden, now they look kind of like whipped puppies – just parroting the company line. … And I think it’s a very dangerous organization.”
One irony: While a magna cum laud student at Lawrence University, Langer wrote his honors thesis on bureaucratic politics. (He also graduated with honors from the UW-Madison Law School and earned a “High Distinction” certificate on his CPA exam.)
“I also had a lot of training at the IRS on how to get rid of people – basically, you just find anything against them, write it down and then harass the shit out of people,” Langer laughs, his voice now rising again. “AND – EXCUSE ME? – LOOK WHAT HAPPENED TO GOOD OLD ED LANGER.”
IRS: No Comment
The Milwaukee IRS office declined comment on Langer’s charges, citing his pending Equal Employment Opportunities Commission and US Merit Review Board challenges related to his dismissal.
“(B)ecause the privacy laws won’t allow me to discuss anything related to the EEOC complaint you say a former employee has against the IRS,” spokeswoman Donna Migazzi wrote Shepherd Express in an email, “I can only provide you with information on background, rather than responding to your questions in an interview.”
In a subsequent phone conversation, she added: “I just think anything we respond to would be in defense of something specific he says – and we just can’t do that.”
Instead, Migazzi forwarded a copy of outgoing US IRS Commissioner Charles O. Rossotti’s recent report to the agency’s Oversight Board. In it, Rossotti worries about more public relations problems for the agency if past trends continue. But he also credits a just-completed IRS reorganization – the most massive in the agency’s history – for substantial progress in a number of problem areas, including customer service and citizen rights, technology management and compliance.
“Internal morale, which was heavily affected by criticism and internal and external change, turned around,” Rossotti says in the report. “Perhaps most importantly, we regained the confidence of the public.”
As of the start of 2002, the IRS employed about 100,000 people nationwide, including 346 in the Milwaukee office, where some 14 attorneys were on staff during Langer’s tenure. The agency’s total annual budget is about $9.4 million.
Here’s how Langer says his private hell began:
In early 1995, an IRS associate and Langer – then, he says, a consummate bureaucratic team player – noticed something fishy about the potential criminal-prosecution cases they found on their desks: An awful lot of African Americans were on the hit list; it just didn’t seem right.
“(The associate) would say, ‘Ed, guess what? I just got another criminal case,’” Langer remembers. “And I would say to him, ‘Another black?’ And he’d say, ‘Yeah.’
“Plus, you have to remember that at this time, there were a lot of grand jury leaks about a purported IRS investigation of a very prominent African American in Milwaukee – AND WRITE THIS DOWN! I WILL NOT GIVE YOU THAT NAME! Plus, there were a lot of problems upstairs with African-American employees who were charging discrimination at the time. So I said to myself, ‘Holy shit!’”
Langer and his associate decided to gather more-precise information, and what they found floored them: From 1992 to 1995, according to their figures, 55 Wisconsin blacks and only 39 whites were targeted for IRS criminal grand jury indictments in the Milwaukee district – a 60% African-American share that even dwarfs the 25% black portion of Milwaukee’s population.
Only “about two or three” black taxpayers had been referred for criminal prosecution by the Milwaukee office from 1980 – when Langer was hired – to 1992, he recalls. And that figure was appropriate, he says, given African Americans’ share of Wisconsin’s population – and especially given the relatively low African-America annual income in the state. (In Milwaukee County, the median African-American income is $24,000, according to 2000 census figures.)
Again, a huge chunk of the 1992-95 cases involved people who had claimed the Earned Income Credit. And, to Langer, the numbers seemed far, far higher than could ever be justified, even during an IRS crackdown on EIC abuse at the time. When he and his associate adjusted their tallies for the crackdown, the African-American share of the Milwaukee IRS prosecution list was still a highly disproportionate 39%.
Langer suspected that some of the local office’s powers-that-be had found an easy way to pad their own personal work statistics – the more prosecution referrals, the more likely they were to get promotions or annual performance awards, which Langer says could add as much as a lump-sum $2,000 to an employee’s annual pay.
And, when he shared his numbers with the US Attorney’s Office, he says, “All of a sudden, all of the African-American cases went away.”
That, however, was when the bad times were just beginning for onetime IRS wunderkind Ed Langer. When he mentioned even general office-diversity issues informally to work acquaintances, Langer was cited for misconduct in performance evaluations. He also caught a misconduct rap when he got stuck tending a co-worker’s child in the office when the co-worker abruptly had to leave.
And, when Langer was on medical leave, disabled by his debilitating bout with depression, his computer records of the alleged racial profiling suddenly disappeared – he’s still trying to get them back. If they were deliberately destroyed, he notes, the Milwaukee IRS office could be charged with a felony.
The hassles went on and on.
“It was hell,” Langer remembers. “Basically, it turned into a snake pit.”
The EIC Conundrum
Milwaukee Common Council President Marvin Pratt, as you might expect, finds Langer’s story “very, very disturbing,” particularly the alleged targeting of blacks who claimed the Earned Income Credit.
“When I think of the EIC, I normally think of low-income people – and I’ve been one of those who have been telling people in the community that, ‘Hey, if you’re eligible, why not apply? It could bring a little more money to you.’” Pratt says.
“For the IRS to kind of key in on low-income people like (Langer) says they did – well, that’s going to target minorities disproportionately, and it’s really a double whammy for them. I think that kind of thing will just make people more hesitant to even fill out their tax returns.”
Pratt, who knows the stress of an IRS review from personal experience, continues: “You know, you don’t argue with the IRS too much. It’s, like, whatever they come up with is gospel – the IRS these days is a lot like the FBI and CIA used to be. I think some people there kind of hold themselves above the fray, and you can’t do much about it unless you’ve got the money for a tax attorney, which most low-income people don’t have.”
Pratt adds that while he used to downplay calls for better IRS oversight, he’s had a change of heart.
“I used to not be so much in favor of things like streamlining the IRS,” he says. “I always thought that kind of thing came more from the conservative people in government – you know, they go on and on about how the rich are supposedly being taxed more. So I always thought any streamlining would be aimed primarily at getting more loopholes for the rich.
“But now, after what you’ve mentioned to me (about Langer’s claims) I would have to definitely say that maybe more we do need more congressional oversight. In fact, I don’t think there’s really too much question about it in my mind.”
Adds one former IRS associate of Langer’s, who is still at the Milwaukee office and spoke to Shepherd Express only on condition of anonymity:
“Dysfunction – oh, there’s no question about it, the IRS is very dysfunctional. I would agree with Ed, for example, that a lot of it is numbers-driven; in fact – God! – almost everything here is. You get supervisors pushing you to close cases, for example – ‘I want you to close this case;’ ‘I want you to close that case.’ And it doesn’t matter that the case is from, like, 1942 and hardly involves any money. Your supervisor just wants it closed because more closed cases make your supervisor look good.”
Still, says the associate, at least some of Langer’s former colleagues thinks he’s pushing the whistleblower angle a little too hard – and for a little too long. The former associate notes, for example, that Langer continues to push his EEOC and Merit Board actions despite at least one significant ruling against him to date.
“You know, actually, in some ways, Ed, himself, got to be more trouble than the current office is, when all was said and done,” the associate says of Langer’s last days at the IRS. “In my opinion, he brought a lot of his problems on himself.”
Calls for off-the-record comment were not returned by several former Langer IRS associates and Milwaukee black political leaders.
A Day at the Capitol
It’s a gorgeous early fall day in Madison – sunny and still warm – and Ed Langer is singing in the state Capitol rotunda as part of the 150th anniversary of the Milwaukee Maennerchor, an all-male chorus of local German Americans. Langer is there as part of the Milwaukee Leiderkranz, another choir that also meets socially once a week in Beer Town to celebrate shared heritage.
The 35-member Leiderkranz group – a few dressed in lederhosen, one or tow sporting classic Bavarian turned-up mustaches – belts out “Zum Gloria” (Shubert’s “To the Glory of God”), sending their voices bouncing off the marble walls. On the main floor beneath the group, Langer’s wife, Judi, a Milwaukee insurance attorney, listens intently, rocking slowly with the music while carrying their sleepy 6-year-old son horsey-style on her back.
Few things are closer to Langer’s heart than his German/Swiss heritage. He’s a dual Swiss citizen and has visited his ancestors’ home country – Landskron, Czechoslovakia, once part of the German Sudetenland – several times over the years. In our interviews, he’s also spoken often and passionately of two distant cousins in Germany who were tortured and killed by Czech soldiers at the end of World War II.
Later, when we’re discussing the family background in another interview in his kitchen, Langer suddenly leaps up, leaves the room and returns, nearly giddy, with a painting that used to hang in his IRS office in Milwaukee. He says it gave him inspiration during the worst times of his ordeal.
The pastel-and-sepia painting is titled, “Landskron in der Zukunft” (“Lanskron in the Future”), and its centerpiece is a mustachioed turn-of-the-century man riding a bicycle that’s suspended in the air from a zeppelin.
Something about the hanging man still fascinates Ed Langer. It evokes powerful feelings about Germany’s Nazi era – and, now, about 2002 America and the modern IRS.
“I remember when all this stuff was happening to me, I kept thinking about that painting,” he says. “My ancestors were hung in Czechoslovakia – pretty much just for being German. At the time, and still to a certain extent today, being German is pretty much associated with being a Nazi to some people.
“So, I would think to myself, ‘WOW! JUST IMAGINE IT! HOW IS IT POSSIBLE THAT SO MANY GERMAN PEOPLE WERE SO SILENT AT THAT TIME!? How could they just stand by and watch all of those terrible things the Nazis were doing? I mean, how come nobody stood up and said, ‘No’? And make no mistake about it, racial discrimination was a part of that, too.”
“Well,” he says, “I guess I just decided at some point, ‘Ed, you can’t just follow orders; you can’t just hang there like that man in the painting. You have to say, ‘No.’”
I ask Langer what he hopes to gain by continuing his legal challenges, which he admits will take years to finally resolve.
“I want to be reinstated,” he answers flatly. And now I wonder whey he’d ever want to go back to the poisoned work atmosphere he’s described so far with such revulsion.
“Why go back?” he says, a little incredulous. “BECAUSE, DAMMIT, SOMEBODY’S GOTTA DO IT! I mean, I’m looking at the IRS in the mid-‘90s just turning into an ethical hell.”
Besides, he concludes a second or two later, “you can rest assured that if I went back, I’d be doing everything I could to make sure that all of this crap just stops.”
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