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February 25, 2016 Pro Bono Matters

An Interview with 2015-2017 Christine A. Brunswick Public Service Fellow Frank DiPietro

By Derek B. Wagner, Pro Bono Counsel, ABA Section of Taxation, Washington, DC

Across the United States, immigrants face a number of challenges as they try to become permanent residents or full U.S. citizens. One important element of the naturalization process is that the individual demonstrate compliance with U.S. tax laws, specifically the filing of tax returns and payment of taxes owed. Unfortunately, the federal income tax can often be a confusing web of complex laws and regulations for immigrants, difficult to understand even under the best of circumstances. Many immigrants, particularly those with family members back in their home countries, are likely to make mistakes with respect to filing status and dependency exemptions. Those who seek the assistance of paid return preparers often find themselves in further trouble, as many unscrupulous preparers prey on immigrants by preparing fraudulent returns to inflate the tax refund.1 Victims of these practices do not realize what has happened until the Service contacts them with adjustments seeking the correct amount of tax and, often, additions and penalties. By that time, the refunds have already been spent, the return preparers are nowhere to be found, and the taxpayers are left with a problem they cannot solve on their own. Furthermore, if the tax issues are not resolved, the immigrants cannot become full citizens.

In the Twin Cities and surrounding areas, Frank DiPietro is working to address these and similar issues. Frank is a Christine A. Brunswick Public Service Fellow. Through a partnership with the Robert M. Mankoff Low Income Taxpayer Clinic and the Center for New Americans, both at the University of Minnesota Law School, Frank provides tax education, outreach, and representation services to non-citizens, so that they can better understand their responsibilities and assert their rights as taxpayers.

ABA Tax Times recently sat down with Frank to discuss the important work that he is doing as part of his Fellowship.

ATT: What inspired you to apply for the Christine A. Brunswick Public Service Fellowship?

FD: For more than two years, I worked at the University of Minnesota Tax Clinic as a student attorney and student director. I saw clients with all types of legal issues, but in particular, immigrants who had tried in good faith to comply with the tax laws, regulations, forms, and Service procedures, but who had been penalized when they were unable to do so. Also, I enjoyed working with individual clients who were often hard-working, good people. It is a tremendous boon to an immigrant family that is living at the poverty level when they are able to save a few thousand dollars with the assistance of a tax lawyer. One time, I received a tearful "thank you" from a mother who received a refund and said she could not otherwise buy clothes for her kids for the start of school.

Things like that you don't forget, and I knew I wanted a job that would allow me to keep doing that kind of work.

ATT: Can you describe your background and prior work experience, both in and out of tax?

FD: Prior to attending the University of Minnesota Law School, I worked first in finance, arranging Small Business Administration loans for small business owners in southern New York. In determining whether people or small businesses qualified for such a loan, I immediately did a financial analysis based on their tax returns.

But that financial analysis of their tax returns was only part of the story. I also had to learn the story of the business, why the business owners created their business, and see how this loan would help them and their business to grow. It was amazing to see the person and story behind the numbers and to help people attain their dreams. Unfortunately, the Great Recession virtually eliminated the availability of these loans, and I needed a new career path.

ATT: Please tell me about your sponsoring organization and how you came to choose it.

FD: Although the overall sponsoring organization is the University of Minnesota, I work directly for two clinics in the university's Law School – the Center for New Americans and the Ronald M. Mankoff Tax Clinic. The Ronald M. Mankoff Tax Clinic provides an opportunity for law students to represent low-income taxpayers who have a controversy with the Service. The Mankoff Tax Clinic was an easy choice for the Fellowship because of all the work it does with low-income taxpayers.

I wanted more for the Fellowship, however, than just controversy work with low-income taxpayers. The university's Center for New Americans, the only program of its kind in the United States, was designed in partnership with leading area law firms and non-profit immigration legal services. Its mission is to expand urgently needed legal services for non-citizens, pursue litigation that will improve our nation's immigration laws, and educate non-citizens about their rights. Through the Center for New Americans' existing partnerships with such organizations as the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota and the Advocates for Human Rights, I knew I could combine my tax work and my interest in immigrant communities. Through the Center, I am able to reach out to local immigrant communities and educate them on how to file their taxes, why they should file their taxes, and where to go if they have any kind of tax issue. The Fellowship has thus provided community outreach opportunities that would not have existed without its support.

ATT: Please tell me about the work you do. What sort of projects are you working on?

FD: The biggest part of my work is community outreach. I go wherever and whenever I can to speak about tax compliance and to show immigrant communities that there are resources available when needed. I have had meetings and education sessions with the African Development Center, the Karen Organization of Minnesota, and Pangea Care, as well as many other groups that now refer cases to us. In the past, they did not even know our clinic existed.

When I speak to various organizations and communities, I highlight the importance of proper tax filings, especially when it comes to claiming the Earned Income Tax Credit and Head of Household filing status. I believe this is the biggest issue in relation to tax compliance within local immigrant communities, and I want to help them understand the importance of claiming these benefits only when they are entitled to them.

The major project I am now working on is ramping up my outreach schedule for the upcoming tax season. I have found that the period from December to February is when community outreach is most needed and most effective. Essentially, this is the time when most low-income taxpayers who hope to receive refunds begin planning and preparing to file their returns. I will be working with a prominent VITA site, Prepare and Prosper, to try to ensure that the local community knows there is a free and honest tax-preparation site that can serve their needs. I will be working with the Hennepin and Ramsay County Library systems, the immigrant groups I have mentioned above, and other community organizations such as Easter Seals to set up education sessions about proper tax compliance and resources for tax help. The students of the Tax Clinic and the Center for New Americans will attend these sessions and provide their knowledge and experience in dealing with tax issues, as well as interpretation services, so our message can be understood by everyone.

ATT: What has been your biggest challenge so far?

FD: My biggest challenge has been organizing and scheduling community events. Often I am able to meet with various organizations' staffers who support local immigrant groups. This gets the word out that the Center for New Americans and the Mankoff Tax Clinic are here to help. Nevertheless, it is very hard to meet directly with members of the community because of the need for a captive audience. I have found that just setting up events and advertising them often leads to poor attendance. To make sure I can meet people, often I need a community organization's assistance: ideally, the organizations will allow me to use their regularly scheduled meeting times with the communities they support. This process can be difficult, because the organizations must be convinced that it is reasonable to allow a relatively unknown person to take up half an hour, if not more, of the organization's time.

ATT: What has been the most rewarding part of your Fellowship?

FD: I feel I really am making a difference in people's lives. I know I am helping people receive tax refunds who desperately need them. The Karen Organization of Minnesota alone has referred several cases—most of them before the U.S. tax court—in the past few months. Those clients, we believe, are entitled to their refunds, but they would not have had a chance to receive them prior to the Fellowship because they did not understand the Service's examination process or know how to file a tax court petition. Simply put, imagine an impoverished immigrant family of five losing a $9,000 refund due them because they did not understand what a Notice of Deficiency is.

Also, other families trying to obtain U.S. citizenship have been denied because their tax returns contained errors. Some immigrant communities, including certain East African cultures, do not recognize that there is a difference between "culturally married" and "legally married" and may improperly file a joint return. This simple issue can prevent someone from obtaining U.S. citizenship and has come up many times through the Fellowship outreach program. I believe we have prevented significant problems like this from occurring with the outreach program.

ATT: Do you have any immediate plans for your career following the Fellowship? How has the Fellowship impacted your career goals? Do you expect to stay with your sponsoring organization after the Fellowship has ended?

FD: I have no immediate plans. Thankfully, I am only about a quarter of the way through my two-year Fellowship. But the Fellowship has impacted me greatly because I know this is what I want to do for the rest of my career. I have thoroughly enjoyed working with the local community as well as going to all of the ABA Section of Taxation meetings and getting the opportunity to meet the people there and learn more than I ever dreamed possible about working with the low-income taxpayer community. There is a chance I will stay with my organization when my Fellowship is done. The Center for New Americans' request for permanent funding from its funding sources will be issued around the end of my Fellowship, and I hope to be included in that request. ■

1 See National Taxpayer Advocate, Areas of Focus: Return Preparer Fraud: A Sad Story, in FY2015 OBJECTIVES REPORT, at 22 (2015).