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In Memoriam: William Hoffman

Posted on Jan. 5, 2022

Tax Notes senior IRS reporter William Hoffman died in his sleep January 1 while visiting family in Texas. He was 62.

Bill joined us 10 years ago last month. We were looking for an experienced reporter who could report and write great stories while also helping mentor what was then an inexperienced team of recent graduates. Bill had had a long career in business journalism around the country, including a year covering corporate tax shelters at one of our competitors, and his clips were good. He was the obvious front-runner.

A day after we interviewed him and before we'd made any offer, he called me.

“I just want to be clear, I'm not a mentor,” he said. “I'm a reporter. I don't want you to have any illusions before you make your decision.”

I thanked him, said I understood, and a couple of days later hired him anyway, illusions still pretty much intact.

For the next 10 years he owned the IRS beat for us, focusing on taxpayer rights, tax preparer issues, and the perennial battle over IRS budgets. He was especially interested in how tax administration can entrench racial inequality, and in the Service's increasing reliance on informal FAQs for guidance, an issue he seemed to take as a personal affront.

Other recent standouts included his 2018 Person of the Year cover story exploring the regulation writers tasked with implementing President Trump's mammoth, complex Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, and a tongue-in-cheek attempt to determine where exactly the IRS kept Trump's tax returns.

He did a lot of good work for us for a long time and won the grudging respect of many IRS officials. He was one of the finest writers we've ever had. He never threw softballs.

And no, he never took on any formal mentorship role.

But in retrospect, that brief phone call 10 years ago captured so much about Bill — his bluntness; his rigorous honesty, even when maybe to his detriment; his pride in his profession; and his tendency sometimes to sell himself a little short.

It may have been true that he was no cheerleader. No one would ever have called him warm and fuzzy. And like all the best reporters, he could occasionally be a pain in the butt. But he was certainly a mentor, to me as much as to anyone.

He did that by being himself — asking inconvenient questions, challenging me to think through decisions more carefully, raising problems I didn't know how to solve. Basically, what he did all day with his sources. Bill was Bill, whomever he spoke to. He didn't care if you were a senator, an IRS commissioner, or his boss. Power of any kind was to be called to account, respectfully but persistently. It was a spirit that fit well at a company with the informal motto “Respectfully disagreeable since 1970.”

Bill laughed at the suggestion that he was any sort of model for his colleagues. The idea struck him as putting on airs. Instead he spoke often about his respect for them bordering on awe. But to the many reporters and editors who worked with him on Tax Notes Today Federal and on our new investigations team, he was indeed a model, of persistence, skepticism, and craft. 

Talking through stories or just shooting the breeze, I came to enjoy his vicious dry humor, and to admire the conviction animating it. Bill believed that power will always disregard the powerless when it isn't actively stomping on them. And he believed too that people with power ought to know better, and to do better.

Through his work and life, Bill tried hard to get them to do just that. We will miss him.

He is survived by his daughter, Kashmir Hoffman; two grandsons, Seamus William Patrick McCarthy and Ambrose Declan McCarthy; sister, Terri, and brother, John; stepsister, Alicia White, and stepbrothers Ethan Lewis and Micah Lewis. To all of them, we offer our deepest condolences.

Chuck O'Toole is the senior executive editor for news.

Correction, Jan. 5, 2022: Hoffman's recent work focused on the intersection of tax administration and racial inequality, not just economic inequality writ large.

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