It’s my annual “Taxes from A to Z” series! Next up:

K Is For Koskinen

On December 23, 2013, John Koskinen was sworn in as the 48th Commissioner of Internal Revenue Service (IRS). As Commissioner, he’s in charge of our nation’s tax system.

It’s a big job and one that hasn’t gone terribly smoothly over the last few years. Former IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman announced in April 2012 that he would not continue to serve past his five-year term which was slated to end in November 2012. After Shulman’s departure, Acting Commissioner Steven T. Miller was ushered into office on November 10, 2012.

Miller wasn’t expected to be named the next Commissioner since it’s rare that an Acting Commissioner gets moved up to Commissioner but his stay was even shorter than expected. Caught up in the IRS tax-exempt organization scandal, Miller was eventually forced to resign. Miller was replaced by Acting Commissioner Daniel Werfel who took office on May 22, 2013, just under two weeks after Lois Lerner’s fateful admission at an American Bar Association meeting that certain tax-exempt organizations were targeted because of their titles or beliefs. By the time that Werfel left office, the scandal was full-blown. Taxpayers had lost faith in the agency. Morale was low. The budget was on the chopping block. And some tax professionals (clears throat awkwardly) didn’t think it made sense to bring in someone without a tax background to run a tax agency. In short, the scene at IRS was set for a less than auspicious beginning for the new Commissioner.

All of that didn’t phase Commissioner Koskinen. He’s seen it before. In the midst of the housing crisis, the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation, commonly known as Freddie Mac, was crumbling. It was concerning since Freddie Mac, together with Fannie Mae, held or guaranteed nearly half of the country’s mortgages. Koskinen was brought in to help the struggling company right itself in 2008 after the company it was taken over by the U.S. government. Today, Freddie Mac is no longer considered in crisis.

Clearly, Koskinen was expected to bring some of that success to IRS. He was tasked with spearheading the agency which collects approximately $2.4 trillion in tax revenue each year during a tumultuous time. He was also expected to manage about 90,000 employees who are charged with “administering the world’s most complicated tax code and dealing with millions of taxpayers.”

With all of that in mind, what was at the top of Koskinen’s priority list in his first season? Restoring public trust in the agency.

He’s now in his second tax season as Commissioner and both tax seasons have gone relatively smoothly save some budget challenges and a cybercriminal or two (or three or four…). With that in mind, Commissioner Koskinen spent this week in appropriations committee meetings (asking for more money) and meeting with state tax authorities and heads of tax software companies to talk about solutions to combat tax refund-related fraud and identity theft.

So what do folks think of Commissioner Koskinen? Anecdotally, his employees seem to really like him, with one telling me just under a year ago, “We really support this guy.” Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, says about him, “He is doing an outstanding job in representing the agency.”

Support, however, is thinner on the Hill with at least one senior GOP Rep implying that he needs to go. Rep. Kevin Brady (R-TX) who serves on the House Ways and Means Committee says that “[t]he IRS has less credibility now than when he took over. And I think we will need a new commissioner before that credibility is regained.” Ouch.

Harsh words. But likely not much worse Koskinen didn’t hear in his nearly 21 years in the private sector helping to turn around large, troubled organizations.

Before Koskinen worked in the private sector, he was a lawyer because, well, isn’t everyone in government? He holds a law degree from Yale University School of Law and a Bachelor’s Degree from Duke University which means that he’s busy each March running IRS and cheering on the Blue Devils (the Bulldogs have ever only been to March Madness three times in their history).

Commissioner Koskinen and his wife Patricia have two grown children and live in Washington, DC.

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Kelly Erb is a tax attorney, tax writer and podcaster.

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