Kicking a Fella When He's Down

03/28/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A Miami Man Tries to Right His Life, Only to Have it Stolen Away by the Government

Imagine waking one morning and logging on to your bank's site to see if one of the companies you work for has finally come through with a long overdue payment, only to find that your bank account has been completely wiped out.

That was the case just this morning with a Miami-based man named John. The thing is, John's little bit of checking and savings wasn't taken by some conniving identity thief, it was taken by the IRS, who claim John owes them taxes, from decades past, as well as for years when he was making $.18 an hour. Yes, that's 18 cents. See, from November 2001 until March 2006 John was a guest of the State of Pennsylvania, and that's how much inmates make when they work in the kitchen.

Now, John might not be the most sympathetic character in the cosmos, but he's more than paid for any mistakes he's made. In fact, against all odds, John has again carved himself a nice little place in the world, despite the fact that not one of his previous employers would hire him upon his release from prison and an ex-con surely doesn't make very many short lists with people looking to recruit new talent.

Still, John worked, and he worked, and he worked some more. Taking any and every odd job he could get, regardless of size, until eventually he was working for over half a dozen employers. And while no one hired John full-time, he did put together enough part-time work to make a life for himself.

John also lent his hand to his mother, with whom he was required to live as a condition of his parole. John's mother, a recently retired lifelong civil servant, had always dreamed of building well-designed affordable housing for folks who'd been priced out of Miami's market. When John was released from prison she bought a small parcel in an inner city neighborhood and formed a corporation to do so, appointing her son as president.

Together John and his mother scraped up enough money to pay for plans (which John had finagled at a cut rate from a friend) and permits (which took many months to secure), and were all set to build when the housing market crashed and the bank pulled their loan.

Stuck with underwater mortgages on their home as well as on their investment property, both of which by then had lost more than half their value, John's mother was forced to file for bankruptcy. They lost the house. They lost the dream. And John even lost his car, which was repossessed by the finance company.

Still, John kept working, taking buses and trains in order to meet his obligations, and putting away everything he could in order to get a car and an apartment of his own. As of Tuesday John had managed to sock away just over $2,000, which might not get him much car, never mind much apartment, but it was a start. Or rather, it was another start.

Then along came the IRS. Frantic, John called and asked why the government had taken all his money. The government insisted it was owed. John tried to tell them that he was incarcerated for nearly five years and surely couldn't have been expected to file tax returns. The IRS said they had no such record.

The Feds also insisted that letters had been sent. But John told them he'd received only one, and that made no mention of any lien, let alone any intention to wipe out John's bank account.

Would not such a letter at least be sent by certified mail?

Not necessarily, said the agent.

Not necessarily.

So now John is again back behind the eight ball, wondering why a guy who's done everything right since his release from prison would be treated so wrongly. It seems so capricious and uncalled for. One would think that with an economy in crisis, finding a law-abiding ex-con who may or may not owe taxes from more than a decade ago would be well down on the list of Federal priorities. That thought, apparently, would be wrong.

John told me he guesses the goal isn't to keep people out of prison after all, but to kick 'em when they're down, and to kick'em even harder every time they try to get back up. Ironically, if John kicks back he goes back to prison. Meanwhile the government can stomp on him as much as they want.