``By this award, this court gives notice to the IRS that reprehensible abuse of authority by one of its employees cannot and will not be tolerated,'' U.S. District Judge William Downes said after the non-jury trial. ``Part of that responsibility requires that you accept criticism, however inaccurate and/or unjustified, in silence.''
Ward, 49, said she is not proud of what she said to auditor Paula Dzierzanowski during the 1993 audit. The meeting was one of several regarding income taxes owed by the children's clothing stores owned by her son, Tristan, then 20.
Two weeks later, IRS agents seized and padlocked the stores with a so-called jeopardy assessment demanding $325,000 in back taxes from Ward. Such an order is considered extreme and is normally used when the IRS fears it is in danger of never collecting the taxes, said Ward's attorney, William C. Waller.
Ward's family depended on the stores as their sole source of income, and the seizure put them in desperate straits. She said her family even lost their electricity because they were unable to pay bills.
By July, Ward had hired a tax attorney and the parties had agreed that the actual amount owed by Ward was about $3,500.
``It was over and done,'' Waller said. But then the IRS went public with information about Ward that was the crux of her lawsuit.
IRS District Director Gerald Swanson and his assistant Patricia Callahan appeared on a Colorado Springs talk show and disclosed tax return information. They also discussed the original $325,000 dispute and allegations against Ward even though the case had been settled, Waller said.
The IRS also disclosed information to TV's ``Inside Edition'' in the form of a fact sheet about the dispute.
The IRS agents said that since Ward had already gone public with information about the dispute, they were within their rights. However, the judge found their behavior negligent.
Another IRS agent, James Scholan, further disclosed information about the dispute in a letter published in a local newspaper. Scholan said he had obtained that information from newspaper accounts, but the judge ruled that he had obtained it as an IRS employee, committing a ``blatant violation.''
Ward was also upset about notices posted in the windows of her stores during the seizure that she said implied she was a drug smuggler.
The judge found that the IRS had caused mental distress, emotional damage and humiliation to Ward.
``Public servants cannot be arbitrarily selective in their treatment of citizens, dispensing equity to those who please them and withholding it from those who do not,'' the judge said.
The IRS had no comment on the case. Nor did the Justice Department's tax division.
Ward said she is glad to be vindicated. But her son's stores are still struggling, she said, and the fight took a huge toll on her personally.
``When you take on these people ... it would be wonderful if I felt like dancing on graves, but by the time you get the victory, it doesn't feel like a victory,'' Ward said. ``They take out the joy.''
Copyright 1997, The Associated Press