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Along with every other Republican running for president this year, Michele Bachmann has railed against taxes. She says they're too high and that the tax codes should be repealed.
Well, in our series, Job 1, we've been looking at a defining job that each GOP presidential contender held before going into politics. NPR's David Welna traveled to St. Paul, Minnesota, to examine Bachmann's somewhat surprising earlier career: going after tax evaders as a prosecutor for the IRS.
DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: At times, Congresswoman and former State Senator Michele Bachmann has seemed to deny that, for nearly her entire professional life, she's been on the public payroll.
REPRESENTATIVE MICHELE BACHMANN: I'm 55. I've spent my whole life in the private sector.
WELNA: That was Bachmann earlier this month at a GOP presidential debate in New Hampshire, but a biographical video on her campaign website tells a different story. It does not mention that she once told a Minnesota group it was her husband Marcus who insisted on her getting a postgraduate degree in tax law, but it does say this.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: She went on to earn a degree in tax law from the prestigious College of William and Mary and served as a tax attorney for the United States government.
WELNA: Repeated requests to speak with Congresswoman Bachmann about her time as a federal tax attorney all went unanswered, but on the campaign trail, she's made that part of her resume a selling point.
BACHMANN: I'm a federal tax lawyer. That's what I do for a living. Because I'm a former federal tax lawyer. I'm a former federal tax litigation attorney. I'm a former federal tax lawyer, I get how devastating high taxes are. I've seen it.
WELNA: That was Bachmann in New Hampshire, Florida, Iowa and finally Columbia, South Carolina. At a campaign stop there in August, she did something she rarely does. She talked about exactly which part of the federal government she'd worked for.
BACHMANN: How many of you love the IRS?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: No!
BACHMANN: No. It's time to change it. I went to work in that system because the first rule of war is know your enemy, so I went to the inside to learn how they work because I want to defeat them.
GENELLE FORSBERG: I don't think she came there to infiltrate the IRS. I think she came there for a job.
WELNA: That's Minnesota tax attorney Genelle Forsberg. She worked alongside Bachmann at the St. Paul IRS legal office during the more than four years Bachmann was employed there beginning in 1988. Forsberg has since left that IRS office where her husband is still senior counsel. She says she never heard Bachmann say anything back then about getting to know the enemy.
FORSBERG: She had indicated to some of us that she really wasn't interested in taxes. This was a job that she got and I think, you know, she was learning as she went, but I didn't see any indication that she was ambitious in making tax law her career.
WELNA: The IRS would not authorize a visit to its St. Paul office, but some of Bachmann's former coworkers say, much of the time she was employed there, she was not actually on the job.
Genelle Forsberg says while she generally took about half a dozen cases to tax court each year, records indicate that Bachmann litigated only two court cases the entire time she worked for the IRS.
FORSBERG: She and myself - we both had two maternity leaves during that period of time that she was there, so you obviously wouldn't have a case during that period of time. But I would say, on average, most people would have more cases for litigation than that.
WELNA: In 1992, Minneapolis attorney Mary Streitz was a pro bono defender at one of the two trials Bachmann litigated.
MARY STREITZ: I remember her as a somewhat tall, slender woman with a lovely black hound's-tooth checked two-piece suit.
WELNA: The case, says Streitz, did not involve much money. A Native American named Marvin Manypenny was charged with failing to pay $5,980 in taxes on about $30,000 earned over a three year period.
STREITZ: That sort of case probably never would have been tried if he hadn't been making the arguments he was making about his Indian status and if he hadn't felt so strongly about them.
WELNA: Streitz recalls that defendant Manypenny, who lives on the White Earth Indian Reservation in northern Minnesota, was sworn in at his request with a peace pipe. Reached by telephone, Manypenny summed up his argument to the tax court.
MARVIN MANYPENNY: If I'm not a part of the people of the United States and, you know, how is it that I'm obligated to pay taxes as a full-fledged citizen?
WELNA: Native Americans, Manypenny maintained, have not been recognized as full citizens by the U.S. Constitution. He describes then IRS prosecutor Bachmann as blunt and curt in the courtroom.
MANYPENNY: But I don't think she understood my points I was trying to make constitutionally and that kind of surprised me in that, you know, her being an attorney, you know, I don't think she grasped, you know, what I was contending.
WELNA: Still, as Manypenny's former counsel Streitz points out, Bachmann did win that case.
STREITZ: I thought she did just fine.
WELNA: Within a year, Bachmann would leave the IRS to start a Christian charter school and pursue her next career as an anti-tax politician. David Welna, NPR News.
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