The Dutch Government Stole Millions From Moms of Color. She's Getting It Back - OZY | A Modern Media Company

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

Because aggressive tax enforcement can go too far.

By Linda A. Thompson

Eva González Pérez was sitting at the kitchen table when her husband showed her the letters. He operated a childcare agency in the Dutch city of Eindhoven, and his roughly 300 clients had all received strange letters from local tax officials stating they would no longer receive a benefit meant to help working parents pay for child care. They’d also have to pay back the government the thousands of euros they’d received in the past two and a half years.

But the documents didn’t say why the families suddenly no longer qualified for the financial assistance. Nor did they explain how parents could contest the tax administration’s decision. With almost 20 years of experience in welfare litigation, “I’d never seen something like this my entire life,” Pérez says.

Her early suspicion that the government had broken its own rules led the Spanish-born lawyer, who was raised in the Netherlands, on a five-year quest that’s sent shock waves through the country, tarnished the tax administration’s reputation and resulted in the resignation of the country’s state secretary for finance, while it’s emerged that the parents were likely racially profiled as tax cheats.

It’s a rotten system.

Eva González Pérez

Last December, the government paid $7.5 million in compensation to 270 families who were all clients of Dadim Gastouders, her husband’s childcare agency. Some parents had given up their jobs or sold their homes to pay the government back. Officials have said “tens of millions” will have to be paid to the estimated 9,000 other parents who have also wrongly been accused of fraud. As Pérez puts it: “I started with this case five years ago … but it’s expanded almost like an oil stain.”

After that initial kitchen meeting, Pérez, 46, would provide legal assistance to around 75 families over the next five years. It was a multifront battle. At one point, Pérez — a diminutive, warm and easygoing figure — had 38 cases pending in courts across the country simultaneously. Pérez sued all the way to the country’s highest court — which ruled against the tax administration — and filed complaints with two local oversight organizations, which both wrote damning reports.

Peréz (6 of 6)

An example of a letter sent by a parent to the tax administration based on a template Pérez created to contest the clawbacks.

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Pérez in her office in Helmond, a small town just outside Eindhoven in the Netherlands.

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This cabinet represents about a fourth of the stack of parent files in her office.

After her husband noticed that a tax official had kept a record of his clients’ second nationality, she alerted the national privacy watchdog to the fact that the parents — most of them people of color — appeared to have been racially profiled. As in many other European countries, it’s illegal for the Netherlands government to keep records on citizens’ ethnicity or race. (The government has said it strongly condemns all forms of racial profiling but otherwise has declined to comment on the case.) Pérez also brought the issue to the attention of journalists and local lawmakers, who started pressuring the country’s finance secretary to look into the matter.

That was a winning strategy, says Gjalt Jellesma, the chairman of the country’s largest interest group for parents with children in child care. “A lot of lawyers gave up because the tax administration didn’t budge an inch, but she kept going and going,” he says. “But without the help of the lower house and without the publicity, like the other lawyers, she wouldn’t have gotten anywhere either.”

Perez in 2012

Pérez in 2012.

Pérez was born in Spain but moved to the Netherlands at age 2, when her parents came to Eindhoven, the country’s fifth-largest city, as migrant workers. Based on an assessment test she took at age 12, she was advised to go to a school that trained women to become housekeepers.

But Pérez wanted to become a lawyer, and she stubbornly started working her way up through the different Dutch education streams until she got her law degree at age 27. A self-admitted simple person, she never considered working for a law firm in a bigger city like Amsterdam or Rotterdam. She wouldn’t fit in anyway, and she wanted to do work that would feel rewarding, that would give her a sense of purpose. So seven years after graduating, Pérez, together with two other lawyers she met while working for a legal aid firm, founded a law firm focused on providing assistance to low-income clients. It’s also why she sometimes buys groceries for her most-in-need clients. She admits this in an almost guilty whisper, as if she knows such a thing shouldn’t be part of her job description.

“She is someone who can’t stand injustice,” says Ahmet Gökçe, her husband of 17 years. “She doesn’t know the meaning of giving up, and she’ll keep going until everything is out in the open.”

Although Pérez’s victorious battle against the tax administration has earned her glowing press coverage, invites to events and a small modicum of fame, it’s also come at a professional cost. The long legal fight stretched the firm’s resources so much that she and her partners ended up renting out half their floor to save money.

Asked whether what happened to the families is a cautionary tale for governments determined to ruthlessly crack down on tax fraud, she fudges. “It’s a rotten system — you have a number of people [in the tax administration] who did this and who did everything they could to go after a particular group of people,” she says.

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Pérez’s law firm rented out half its floor to save money.

To underscore the point, she grabs her phone and starts flicking through photos of a four-hour roundtable meeting among parents, tax officials and lawmakers two days earlier. Almost all the parents seated around the tables in the large, brightly lit meeting space are people of color.

But Pérez won’t come out and say that tax officials ethnically profiled parents before the country’s privacy watchdog releases its report, at an unknown future date. “I don’t want to get ahead of the facts,” she says. “But it would be some really strange twist if they didn’t.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story had an incorrect date for a photo of Pérez. It was taken in 2012, not 2000.

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