William Robert (Bob) Pope, Jr. died April 22, 2022. This piece is a recounting of some personal memories. You can find his obituary in The Tennessean, which is the hometown newspaper of Nashville, where Bob lived. (Bob always had a little extra cachet with me after I learned that, for a number of years, Bela Fleck was a neighbor.)
I first met Bob through a Task Force that the Tax Section created in response to the government’s mid-1990s proposals for tax-related amendments to the Bankruptcy Code. Paul Asofsky did a wonderful job leading the Task Force, and the Task Force published a comprehensive document. Thereafter, the Task Force remained in place, as the underlying legislation did not pass Congress until early 2005. During this time, the Task Force asked to be turned into an official Tax Section committee. Several years passed and still no committee. The Task Force finally became an official committee after Bob took a cab ride with the appropriate Section leadership at a San Francisco meeting. I have no idea how Bob arranged the cab ride or what he said during the cab ride. All I know is that the Task Force was not a committee at the start of the cab ride, and it was when the cab ride ended.
The original committee name was Bankruptcy and Workouts. As many of you know, at annual meetings committee leaders meet with Section leaders to discuss how to improve the committee’s outreach. Often those meetings at the Grand Hyatt in Washington, D.C. were held on a hidden floor that could only be accessed by a special elevator, leading to one of my running jokes with Bob about being “off to see the wizard.” Because the first word in the committee name was “bankruptcy,” the committee generated minimal interest. In one simple step, Bob solved the problem. At his suggestion, the committee name changed to Tax Collections, Bankruptcy and Workouts. The committee work did not change, but interest in the committee increased significantly. It was a simple, yet effective solution and representative of Bob’s style and effectiveness.
Bob was my go-to for quick, sharp, common-sense answers to knotty legal questions. I greatly valued his opinion. Here is an example of a question that I asked Bob that related to my work in Milkovich v. United States, Ninth Circuit No. 19-35582 (Mar. 2, 2022).
Bankruptcy discharges unsecured debt obligations but not secured debt. When a taxpayer’s underwater personal residence is abandoned by a bankruptcy trustee, does the debtor have discharge of indebtedness income? The personal liability is discharged, but the liability on the debtor’s property remains.
In his own direct and terse way, Bob answered “no.” As the case progressed and I dealt with IRS personnel and DOJ attorneys who disagreed with me (and Bob), his quick answer gave me confidence. A number of years later, the Ninth Circuit agreed with Bob. When I called to thank him, he said “great” and added that, honestly, he did not remember the conversation. That is not surprising, as I bet many others valued his opinion and that would have been dozens of tough issues ago.
Whenever we were on panels together, Bob and I had a well-established division of labor. I would work on the written materials, and Bob would run the live committee meeting. This will make perfect sense to those of you who knew Bob.
In keeping with my role as the person who drafted materials, here is a follow-on Milkovich question that is directly related to tax collections. Consider the passport revocation rules, and, in particular, the computation of a taxpayer’s legally enforceable tax debt. Section 7345(b)(1)(B) provides that before a taxpayer’s passport can be revoked, the taxpayer’s legally enforceable tax debt must exceed a threshold amount.
Does legally enforceable tax debt mean only personal liability? Assume the personal tax liability of a taxpayer/debtor is discharged in bankruptcy, but that person continues to own property with a tax lien attached. Will the Service consider the tax debt legally enforceable to the extent of the value of that property or will the Service conclude there is no legally enforceable personal tax debt? If the answer is the secured debt alone creates legally enforceable tax debt, should the Service be in the business of valuing or revaluing all the property listed on bankruptcy schedules? Will the Service reverse the passport revocation if the valuation declines below the threshold?
At one D.C. meeting, the Tax Collections Committee invited Service personnel in charge of implementing the passport-revocation rules to speak. I asked Bob what the response would be when I raised the legally-enforceable-tax-debt question. He rolled his eyes and told me they would not know what I was talking about. Correct again, Mr. Pope. To be fair to the representatives from the Service, I also remember lots of titters from the meeting attendees.
Bob and I talked two or three times a year. We shared a passion for SEC football and invariably that topic would arise. We might discuss the most recent games or the upcoming season or the antics of Lane Kiffin (former coach of Bob’s law school alma mater the Tennessee Volunteers) or the brilliance of Nick Saban (coach of my law school alma mater the Alabama Crimson Tide). I would ask about his golf game. As with most golfers, he would be working on something new and thought improvement was just around the corner.
In our conversations, there was always a tip of the cap to Fran Sheehy. Fran and Bob were two peas in a pod. They were both incredibly smart former government attorneys who were able to get straight to the point. If there were one thing Bob and I agreed on more than any other, it was the greatness of Fran and how much we missed her.
My heart goes out to Bob’s wife Marcia. Marcia and Bob first started dating when they were both 16 and were married for 55 years. Marcia is a wonderful lady, whom I met a number of times at Tax Section meetings. Clearly, Marcia was both blessed and part saint to have lived with Bob all those years.
For those of us who knew Bob, we miss him. For those of you who did not know Bob, you missed out.