venerdì 22 dicembre 2017

An (Italian) IRS Christmas Story

Dear friends,

On this cold, snowy morning in Natick, Massachusetts, I bring you a message of great holiday cheer!  I share my joy at having learned two new beautiful phrases in Italian: "Agenzia delle Entrate" and "accertamenti fiscali."

Having played so many organ recitals in Italy, Austria, Germany, and Switzerland, I never had a negative or dishonest experience.  With one sole exception: my most recent concert, at a church in Italy which I will not name.

All the other concerts followed exactly the same pattern, without a single exception (until now).  The organizer offers me an fee -- let's say €500. When there is a contract, it is one-page long: my name, address, date of birth, time and place of the concert, and (I'll make up some numbers) honorarium €862.47, minus €362.47 of taxes, makes €500. I am paid that fee, net, before the concert.  On my part, the taxes are pre-paid.  On the organizers' part, they distribute the taxes according to the law.

Not so in this one exceptional case.  I won't bore you will the unbelievable amount of bureaucracy around this one concert -- sponsored not by the church but by a "foundation" which, I learned later, is known for shady business dealings.

Even before my arrival in Italy I could smell a scam. The day before my concert they required me to get a codice fiscale, an Italian social security number.  (For ONE concert!)  I asked the woman from the Foundation, "Why do I need this?"  She said, "Without it, we cannot pay you."  I said, "Are you sure they won't then try to take taxes out?"  She said emphatically, "Non ha nulla a che fare con le tasse!," and "Le tasse non c'entrano proprio!" ("It has nothing to do with taxes!  Taxes have nothing to do with it at all!")

The next evening was the concert.  I am handed a contract to sign THIRTY MINUTES before the concert.  What do I do?  Delay the start of the contract so that I could study it?  Then what?  Try to shift my focus from the contract to the music?  This occurred a half-hour before playing a concert.

I play the concert.  I return to America.  I check my account.  No payment.

A month passes.  Two months pass.  No payment.  Again, I won't bore you.  A long chain of delay tactics.  Not even clever ones.  They said, "Your bank numbers were wrong."  I called the bank, double-checked the numbers, and of course they were correct.  The funniest tactic was, "Because you're American, we cannot pay you until you sign a ricevuta ['receipt']." I responded politely, "How can I sign a 'receipt' when I haven't 'received' anything?"

Only then did I make some inquiries and learned how this foundation operates: "Yeah, they pay, but they pay a year later, and usually not in the amount that was agreed upon."


Well, Christmas was coming, and I was not going to wait a year.  I spoke about it to an Italian friend.  I said, "Should I write to a lawyer?"  He said, "Write the letter to the lawyer but don't send it. Then write to the Foundation, attach the draft, and say, 'I have not sent this letter yet, but I will if you do not pay me within 5 business days'." The Foundation responded FAST.  And wouldn't you know it!  Mirabile dictu!  Money appeared in my account.  It was the agreed upon fee ... minus 39.19% in tax withholdings!  This included a 9.19% withholding required only of Europeans, not of Americans.  At very least, that 9.19% was pure theft -- money stolen by them from me.

Buried in my contract was one clause, with the word "lordo." A word that I had never seen before in a contract for an organ recital.  The word "lordo" means "gross," as opposed to "netto" ("net").  This was very first communication about taxes by this organization, or anyone connected to it, written or spoken.

It was a classic Trumpian scam: delay payment for 1 month, 2 months, 6 months, 12 months, then say, "I'll give you 60 cents on the dollar, and you can't afford to sue us."  The victim accepts the 60 cents and goes away quietly.

But only because that victim did not know about statutory damages.  What are statutory damages?  If I owe you 100 dollars and pay you 95, you won't sue me for 5 dollars.  But if IN THE PROCESS of stealing your 5 dollars I broke a law (or 2, or 3), you can sue me for statutory damages.  Maybe $5000.  Maybe $10,000.  Maybe $25,000.  And this Foundation broke numerous laws.  Unethical business practices.  Making someone sign a contract under duress.  Illegal tax withholding.

I knew that the Italian consulate here in Boston would not help -- but that the American Embassy there in Rome certainly would help.  I knew that I could sue the Foundation and win.  But I did not relish the thought of a law suit.  Who enjoys a law suit?  I would win, but at what emotional cost?  And after so many years of so many beautiful Italian experiences?  I felt downhearted.

Then I received an unexpected email.  I have a dear friend who has a law degree from an important school in Rome.  I had forgotten that I told the story to this friend.  The friend wrote me a very concise email: "I asked the consulenti del lavoro ['labor consultants'].  The withholding should have been only 20%.  Write to the Foundation and request the 'certificazione del compenso' [official tax document], so that you can send it to the 'Agenzia delle Entrate' [the Italian IRS]. When they hear the words 'Agenzia delle Entrate,' they will tremble.  They can get 'accertamenti fiscali' [a tax audit]."

Lo and behold, I received a response with lightning speed.  "We can't provide you with the document for the fiscal year 2017 until May 2018. In fact, it would be illegal to provide it earlier." (I laughed at their sudden concern for the law!)  The statement was credible: here in America, the tax documents arrive only between January 1st and February 1st.  Upon the lawyer's advice, I responded, "As soon as I receive the documentation I will request reimbursement from the Agenzia delle Entrate."

Meaning: they make things right with me, or they get a tax audit.

The most incredible part of this?  The tax issue, they themselves introduced it.  Now they themselves have to face it!

This development has brought great peace to my heart -- nicely timed before the Christmas season.

You may wonder about the complete silence around the organist of this church.  The person who invited me to travel from America to his church.  The person who quoted me a price that was not paid.  Well, this is not the time to tell that story.  The story of Pontius Pilate is told during Lent, not during Christmas.

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