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Legal anecdote file: Some government interventions can hurt for a while
What puzzled me, though, was how I got in the crosshairs of the government when I had tried to carefully comply with all the tax rules. Simply, how could this happen to such a law-abiding citizen?
I don't even think about trying to be deceptive or duplicitous. I never try to get way with anything. It's not that I try to hold myself to a higher moral standard; rather, a higher moral standard was imposed upon me by fate. I discovered early in life that I couldn't get away with anything. In fact, as is the case with many veterinarians, I can't always stay out of trouble even when I try to do everything squeaky clean.
Some years ago, I happily was minding my own business when the bookkeeper at one of my veterinary practices received a phone call from the state tax department. Albany wanted to know what would be a good day for them to send over a field agent to do a complete, exhaustive review of our sales-tax records — going back three to five years.
My bookkeeper politely arranged for a starting date. Shortly thereafter, a very businesslike gentleman with several networked laptops set up a mini-office in my practice. He reviewed reams of sales records during several days and shook my hand when he left. Within a week, a bill arrived for nearly $2,000 for uncollected sales tax attributable to what I think they referred to as "arguable transactions." Such transactions, I learned, were things the state says were taxable events, such as medicated baths not specifically ordered by a DVM or refills of non-allergenic food in instances where there had not been a recent diagnosis of allergy.
Though I had a right to appeal, I just bit the bullet and paid the tab. What puzzled me, though, was how I got in the crosshairs of the government when I had tried carefully to comply with all the tax rules. Simply, how could this happen to such a law-abiding citizen?
A few months later, I learned the answer from a veterinary intelligence operative, also known as a pharmaceutical sales rep. It was explained that the real reason for the state-tax investigation was an alleged impropriety perpetrated by one of our large corporate drug suppliers. Just for fun, Albany decided to audit a group of the company's largest customers, too. Or at least that was the scuttlebutt.
But I hardly can complain. At least I didn't have to worry about having my license revoked on the basis of some unprovoked and unexpected action by a state agency. Consider what happened to this lucky DVM: A large-animal veterinarian client of mine called me, horrified to find out what he should do about a threat from his home state to spontaneously revoke his veterinary license. This doctor travels a great deal from horse show to horse show and decided that he would like to obtain a license in a distant state where he recently had been doing some horse show judging. He already was licensed in several states.
When he contacted his home state to have them report that he was licensed and in good standing there, some official noticed that his 35-year-old national board scores were either reported or interpreted incorrectly. Consequently, it appeared that Doc's exam score had been a few points shy of the level required for him to get his license in 1967.
Bureaucratic wheels turn
Then, the government did what it often does. No calls were made to Doc. No questions were submitted to the national board. Instead, letters were fired off to the five other states where Doc held licenses. Each of the five states subsequently initiated their own investigations. So in the innocent effort to obtain one new license by reciprocity, my client suddenly was at risk for losing his source of livelihood—simply as a result of someone else's mistake three decades earlier.
But perhaps Doc shouldn't complain too much, either. At least he had a dry place to work during the license crisis.
Consider the plight of a small animal veterinarian who called my office a while back: This wonderful lady had a thriving practice in the Southeast United States. You know the kind; she lived near her office, and every time any problem would arise, the local folks would just show up at her house with an armload of sick critters.
I have to think that no one on the local town board ever availed himself of her generous services, though. You see, when a vote came up on how to manage sewage generated by large new property developments nearby, the board voted to transfer huge volumes of sewage into the underground pipes running past this nice doctor's veterinary clinic. Within days, the basement was flooded with raw sewage. In a week, the first floor of the clinic was awash in nasty, too.
The municipality sent people out, drained the property a few times and then told my client that it was out of its hands. Nothing else could be done.
The media blitz
Before you knew it, the veterinarian and her property were on the local news. Then, the story was televised statewide. Eventually, the case was highlighted on a network newsmagazine program. Everybody was involved—except the board that had diverted the sewage. The local government had long since moved onto new business, leaving the veterinarian with an office that hardly could serve clients; it couldn't even pass a health inspection ordered by the municipality.
But creative solutions can solve some bureaucratic conundrums. A while back, I had a client who had lost a couple of associates and was really strapped for help. He was coming into the summer and was at wits' end trying to figure out how his large small animal office was going to keep functioning. It gets worse.
It seems that the practice had successfully hired a new graduate, and the new doctor had passed her national and state boards. In fact, she was showing up every day at work, receiving a good paycheck and developing a great rapport with the staff.
Unfortunately, her activities were limited to restraining animals and clipping up abscesses. Though an application had been submitted months previously, the state would not process the new graduate's license. Consequently, my client had hired the world's most expensive kennel help.
So, what was the problem? Nothing was missing from the applicant file. All transcripts, board scores and completed forms had been timely and appropriately submitted. Yet for month after month, no license emerged from the state capital. Lost file? Overworked staff? Who knows? My advice to this distraught practice owner would be the same, regardless: The problem had to be "personalized."
This doctor followed my advice to the letter. He made a trip to the state capital. He located the office where the license application would be processed. Initially, no one was terribly sympathetic. But when Doc explained that there had been a death in the family (there had) and that he would need to help make funeral plans, the state license staff secretaries took pity on him and his overworked life. They said they would see what they could do and try to locate the file.
That afternoon, I had Doc send the state licensing agency secretaries a large floral arrangement directly to their office.
The new graduate's licensing number was available the following morning.