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Briefs (right)

Taxpayer Advocate Wants To End
Use Of Private Debt Collection

By Lynnley Browning

The national taxpayer advocate called on Congress on Tuesday to repeal the authority of the IRS to use private debt collectors.

In her annual report, the taxpayer advocate, Nina E. Olson, said the private debt collection program was economically inefficient and prone to abuse. In particular, she faulted the IRS for not disclosing certain “psychological techniques” used by the private firms when trying to collect unpaid taxes.

The office of the taxpayer advocate was created by Congress to identify problems within the IRS that affect taxpayers and to promote their interests before the agency and Congress, which writes the tax code.

Olson’s office provided its most extensive review yet of the private debt-collection program, which it has been monitoring for two years since plans for it were announced. The program, which formally started in September, is meant to farm out easily collectible tax bills, typically owed by low-income taxpayers, to private collection agencies. When the IRS announced the program, it said that the private entities would abide by the same publicly disclosed rules as IRS employees.

Private debt collection has drawn criticism that it is not cost-efficient and that some of the private firms hired by the IRS have questionable business practices.

Bush’s Task: Thrusting New
Strategy On ‘A Sovereign Nation’

By Helene Cooper

It’s a refrain that President Bush and his top deputies have uttered many times over:

“Iraq is a sovereign nation, and we stay because they have asked us to be there,” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in October.

“Iraq is a sovereign nation which is conducting its own foreign policy,” Bush said in November.

“It’s a sovereign nation; it’s their system, they make those decisions,” Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV, the American command’s chief spokesman in Iraq, said last week.

Now, as Bush prepares to unveil his new strategy for Iraq on Wednesday night, the question is this: Can American officials compel the Iraqis to follow the new American plan?

“Let me put it this way: At the end of the day, we’re going to have to do some forcing,” said Kenneth M. Pollack, an expert on Iraq at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.

“We have to make it impossible,” he said, for Prime Minister Nouri Kamal al-Maliki “not to do the right thing — for him to say, ‘Look, we have no choice, the Americans are forcing us.”’

But Pollack and other foreign policy experts said that might require American ultimatums that, thus far, the Bush administration has been unwilling to issue.

Doctors Fault Designers’ Stance
Over Thin Models

By Eric Wilson

The response of American fashion designers to the problem of dangerously thin models on the runway is to propose educational reform and better working conditions. The response of eating disorder professionals is to suggest that those models should not be on the runways at all.

The Academy for Eating Disorders, an international doctors’ organization based in Northbrook, Ill., planned to release a series of recommendations on Tuesday that contrast sharply with the proposals discussed on Friday by the Council of Fashion Designers of America in a meeting led by the designer Diane Von Furstenberg.

While designers have resisted age and weight requirements, the doctors’ group insists that they are necessary.

Dr. Eric van Furth, the clinical director of the Center for Eating Disorders Ursula in Leidschendam, the Netherlands, and the president of the Academy for Eating Disorders, criticized the designers on Monday because they did not solicit medical opinion beyond that of a panel assembled by the editors of Vogue magazine. Van Furth said he was concerned about the industry’s ability to monitor itself.

“We believe the fashion industry should take responsibility for the health of its models,” van Furth said. “The way they are presenting their guidelines really shows they are not acknowledging the seriousness of the problem of eating disorders at all.”

Judge Sends Public
Defender To Jail

By Christopher Drew

The chief judge in the city’s juvenile courts had a top public defender arrested Tuesday in a bizarre escalation of a fight over changes in the city’s troubled program for representing indigent defendants.

The judge, David Bell, was upset that no public defender was in his courtroom when he was ready to start on Tuesday morning, and he drove to the defender’s office and waited outside for Stephen Singer, the chief of trials, to arrive.

The judge took Singer to his courtroom, where he found him in contempt for not being prepared to provide representation and ordered him jailed for 36 days, three days for each of the 12 items on Tuesday’s docket. Singer then spent about five hours in jail before a state appeals court stayed the order.

The incident was the latest in a series of confrontations between judges and the public defender’s office, which has long been overwhelmed and went broke after Hurricane Katrina.

A new board has shifted how the office uses its 30 lawyers to try to provide more thorough representation on the most serious cases. But the changes have made the day-to-day coverage more spotty, and the criminal court judges also have threatened to hold the office in contempt over the problems.

After his release, Singer said the dispute with Bell arose because the defender assigned to his court was on her honeymoon, and her replacement was trying to handle four courtrooms at once.

Bell did not respond to a request for comment. But Singer said he and the judge had a more congenial meeting about the problems late in the day.