Examining Bachmann's Years as an IRS Lawyer

Tax attorney or tax collector? A closer look at the tea-party candidate's professional history

Michele Bachmann GOP debate - Molly Riley Reuters - banner.jpg

You'll never guess what Michele Bachmann, the rabble-rousing, tax-reviling, government-bashing idol of America's tea party movement, used to do for a living. Sue tax scofflaws for the Internal Revenue Service.

As she flexes her credentials as a Republican presidential candidate in a field of former governors and corporate executives, Bachmann is more likely to describe herself as a "former federal tax litigation attorney'' -- as she did in her first nationally televised debate -- than as a three-term member of Congress. But she rarely, if ever, mentions the one and only employer of her legal services: the U.S. Department of Treasury.

In just a month as a presidential candidate, Bachmann's plucky populism has catapulted her from also-ran to leading contender. That her legal career has received such little scrutiny reflects her rapid ascension on the national stage and a carefully groomed image.

"You're running for president in a sound-bite era and trying to build certain features of a character that will resonate strongest with voters,'' said Adam Brandon, a spokesman for FreedomWorks, one of the most influential organizations in the tea party movement. "She's going to highlight the things that are consistent with the image she's building up for the public.''

Brandon said he didn't think tea party activists would be troubled by Bachmann's work for the IRS. The tax code itself is the problem, he said. But some of her rivals might be tempted to make her former job an issue.

"If you're Tim Pawlenty or Newt Gingrich, you're going to grab this and say, "Look at this, she's a tax collector,' ''Brandon said.

The founder of the House Tea Party Caucus, Bachmann is a central figure in a national insurgency that decries big government and demands lower taxes. Her campaign and congressional biographies make no mention of her handling of tax collection cases from 1988 to 1993 for the IRS.

"Rather than taking money from the hands of the middle class to pay for a large, overbearing federal government, I believe in letting hard-working taxpayers keep more of what they earn,'' she says on her congressional website. "In my work as a former federal tax attorney, I saw firsthand that our nation's tax laws are hard to understand and undermine the country's prosperity by imposing needlessly harsh penalties on work, savings, and investments.''

Tell that to Marvin Manypenny, a Native American activist in Minnesota who failed to pay taxes on three years of wages totaling $30,650. Bachmann took him to federal court in 1992.

Manypenny worked at the Youth Project, described in court records as "a public foundation with a 17-year history of building citizen participation organizations around the country committed to social justice and peace.'' The resident of the White Earth Indian Reservation contended he was exempt from income taxes because of the April 8, 1867 land treaty between his Chippewa Indian ancestors and the U.S. government. He met Bachmann briefly in the federal court building in St. Paul.

Presented by

Beth Reinhard & Lindsey Boerma

Beth Reinhard is a political correspondent for National Journal. Lindsey Boerman is a staff reporter (politics and policy) for National Journal.

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