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Monday, April 14

War-tax resisters refuse to pony up for bullets, bombs, guns

By Greg Barrett | GNS

WASHINGTON - In a certified letter six months ago, the Internal Revenue Service informed Ed Hedemann that he owed the federal government $3,360.75 in back taxes, penalties and interest.

 Hedemann knows this is only a fraction of the truth. By his accounting, he is in arrears by $60,633.64 - an amount about equal to the cost of one precision-guided bomb.

Which is the precise point of his defiance. As a devout pacifist, Hedemann, 58, calculates the amount of money he owes the federal government each April and then openly snubs the IRS. He attaches a note with his tax returns explaining that his payment is being redirected to social charities and peace organizations.

 It's better to spend his money on humanitarian causes, he said, than to help purchase $12 million Black Hawk helicopters, $600,000 Tomahawk cruise missiles, $14,000 cluster bombs and $9 hand grenades.

 "War is good for nothing," Hedemann said, echoing five generations of war-tax resisters.

These peace activists trace their cause to writer Henry David Thoreau and his refusal to pay a poll tax in 1847 in protest of the Mexican-American War.

And like Thoreau, who was imprisoned for one night in Massachusetts, war-tax resisters today risk the loss of their homes and their freedom.

No one - neither the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee in Ithaca, N.Y., nor the federal government - tracks the number of war-tax resisters. Such protests are so rare they are not worth noting, said IRS spokeswoman Nancy Mathis.

Before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the tax resistance committee was getting one phone call per day. Today it receives at least six per day, said committee coordinator Mary Loehr of Ithaca. Traffic to the Web site of the War Resisters League has increased from 5,000 hits per day last fall to 45,000 hits per day this spring, said Hedemann, a coordinator for its chapter in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Loehr, 44, a Cornell University graduate and the only paid employee of the committee, avoids federal taxes by keeping her income below the poverty level - $7,800 for a single person under age 65.

"I do not file (tax returns) at all," she said. "They just haven't tracked me down."

Government watchdogs report that criminal prosecutions of tax evaders has declined by nearly two-thirds over the last two decades. Federal court records show 1,431 tax cases were prosecuted in 1981 and 490 were prosecuted in 2002, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.

The last time a war-tax resister was jailed was 1993, when Bill Ramsey of St. Louis spent 30 days in a federal prison on misdemeanor charges stemming from his tax protest. Heavy-handed threats against tax protesters decreased after Senate Finance Committee hearings in 1997 and 1998 scolded the IRS for its bullying tactics, said war-tax resister Randy Kehler, whose Massachusetts home was seized by the government in 1989.

Today, Kehler, a self-employed public policy analyst, figures he owes the IRS at least $100,000 for 25 years of unpaid federal taxes, interest and penalties. But he gets only letters of warning, which he ignores. "If we (the United States) would give up our own weapons of mass destruction ... and if we just maintained enough weapons for our own self-defense with the intention of moving toward nonviolent defense, I would pay my taxes," he said. "I would be so delighted that I'd turn somersaults and pay double taxes."

'Frivolous tax arguments'

A petition circulated this month by the War Tax Resistance committee collected the names of 500 people, including anti-war icons such as singer Joan Baez and writer Noam Chomsky. The signatories to "An Appeal to Conscience" offer their support for the cause of war-tax resistance, but they stop short of pledging personal defiance of the IRS.

Cases such as Hedemann's fall officially into the category of "frivolous tax arguments," said Mathis of the IRS office in Washington. Tax evaders are subject to fines and penalties, and they ultimately risk prison and seizure of their property.

Federal courts have ruled several times against arguments for refusing to pay federal taxes based on religious or moral objections. Yet Hedemann, among others, remain undaunted by warning letters from the IRS and the Justice Department.

To them, requiring pacifists to pay for the military is like docking the pay of vegetarians and animal rights activists to fund slaughterhouses and chinchilla farms. "It would be hard for me to live with myself and pay for something I do not believe in," said Hedemann, a self-employed author, editor and photographer who has dodged federal taxes and collectors since 1972. "It's easier to do than you might think."

Indeed, the slogan of the New York-based National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee - "If you work for peace, stop paying for war" - makes tax evasion sound effortless. It's not, judging by the experience of some of the most ardent tax resisters.

In 1989, the federal government seized the two-bedroom farmhouse in Colrain, Mass., where Kehler lived with his wife, Betsy Corner, and their 12-year-old daughter, Lillian. The home, which was worth between $50,000 and $75,000, sold at auction for $5,400 to a couple who purchased it with their tax refund.

Following the auction, IRS spokesman Robert Goldsmith told reporters that Kehler and Corner could "seek a redress of their grievances against the system by contacting their congressional representatives or senators or run for office themselves and throw the rascals out, if ... they feel their taxes are being squandered.

``But it is not our responsibility to moralize or to philosophize,'' he said. ``It is our responsibility to administer the law."

 When Kehler refused to leave the house, he was arrested for contempt of court and jailed for two months. Today, Kehler and Corner live in a house that Corner's deceased mother left to Lillian.

Lillian is 23 now, lives in Santa Cruz, Calif., and pays her taxes.

Protest as lifestyle

Hedemann rents an apartment in Brooklyn and runs workshops on war-tax resistance, despite the risk of rankling the IRS. His 1981 how-to paperback, "War Tax Resistance," was republished in February by the War Resisters League. To avoid liens on his income and seizure of his property, he does not own a house, a car, or any land, and he does not have a checking account. His savings account is in someone else's name.

When the IRS ordered Hedemann in 1997 to turn over all documents regarding his assets, his business clients and bank accounts, he showed up at the agency's Brooklyn office with only the War Resisters League pie chart that detailed how federal tax money is allotted. The current edition of that chart counts 47 percent of the federal budget as military spending. It includes Department of Defense money, as well as other categories such as foreign defense aid, veterans' benefits, money for the CIA and FBI, and interest paid on portions of the national debt traced to wartime spending.

The Justice Department took Hedemann to court in 1999 and demanded he provide legal justification for not turning over the information. He claimed the records could be self-incriminating and cited the Fifth Amendment. The case has been stalled for four years.

 Of the $60,000 or so Hedemann has avoided paying the IRS, two-thirds has been erased by time. There is a 10-year statute of limitations on tax collections and Hedemann has been a war-tax resister for three decades.

But in November, the IRS contacted one of Hedemann's customers and said Hedemann owed $54,266.46 in taxes, interest and penalties from 1992 to 2001.

This is why Hedemann tries to collect promptly from his clients - to avoid any garnishment of wages. He has had more luck then the IRS.

 "Nearly all of them pay right away," he said. "They're pretty good about it."

On the Web:

www.warresisters.org, site for the War Resisters League