End of An Era: State Tax Legend Paul Frankel Dies

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By Jennifer McLoughlin

A light has gone out in the state and local tax world with the passing of one of its most preeminent and beloved practitioners.

Paul H. Frankel, affectionately dubbed the “godfather of state and local taxation,” died early Feb. 28 at his home in New Jersey. He leaves behind his wife of more than 50 years, Deanna ("Dee") , three adult children and several grandchildren.

Frankel, 80, was a widely respected SALT litigator with a career that spanned more than 50 years, starting before the state and local tax profession evolved into its present-day prominence. In fact, practitioners widely regard him as the key figure who promoted the professional discipline, cultivated the SALT community and mentored practitioners now leading the field.

Admired for his humility, however, Frankel didn’t embrace the popular perception of him as a giant or icon of the SALT world. He was known to resist receiving or being the namesake of several awards—including the Council On State Taxation’s Paul Frankel Excellence in State Taxation Award and the NYU School of Professional Studies’ Paul H. Frankel Award for Outstanding Achievement in State and Local Taxation.

As colleagues and friends look back on Frankel’s life, they remember a man whose loss will be widely felt.

“No doubt, state and local tax’s star has been dimmed by Paul’s passing,” Charles W. Drury, Jr., vice president and chief operating officer for the Council On State Taxation, told Bloomberg BNA. COST is a Washington, D.C.-based trade association composed of about 600 multistate corporations engaged in interstate and international business.

Professional Force

Frankel was with Morrison & Foerster LLP for almost three decades, having previously worked at W.R. Grace & Co. and the IRS Regional Counsel’s Office in New York. It was during his tenure at W.R. Grace that Frankel took up the torch of building the SALT practice.

“State tax over the last 35 years has truly evolved and transformed into a much more visible profession,” said Douglas L. Lindholm, president and executive director for COST, where Frankel was the first chair of the COST Lawyer’s Coordinating Subcommittee. “And Paul had a great deal to do with that.”

Lindholm told Bloomberg BNA that when Frankel started at W.R. Grace, he started to recognize several unresolved, uncertain issues that presented difficulties for companies. During his time with COST, Frankel arranged audit sessions and “really got the Fortune 1000 companies together and started sharing information about state taxes.”

“If not for Paul, I think that we would still be stuck in the dark ages a little bit,” Lindholm said.

Frankel’s force was also felt in academia. Lindholm explained that during the early SALT days, practitioners typically stumbled into a field they feel lucky to have found.

“Now, thanks to Paul’s work on the advisory boards of groups like NYU, Georgetown, the Hartmann and others, so many law schools now teach state and local tax,” he said. “There is fresh, new blood coming into the profession every year, which was something very, very difficult to find several years ago.”

Love for Tax

Frankel’s love of the tax profession was palpable, pouring into his interactions with others.

“It was everything for him,” said Craig B. Fields, a friend and Morrison Foerster colleague for 26 years. “He just loved what he did. A lot of people like their work. He loved his work.”

When presenting at a conference or meeting, Frankel pulled in the crowds—"they put Paul on first or last, to get people there or to keep them to stay,” Fields told Bloomberg BNA.

“Not only was he informative, he did it in an entertaining way,” Drury said, adding that he “would talk to people after Paul made a presentation, and you could see how he energized them. It was like people going to a revival meeting.”

The “showdowns” between Frankel and Professor Richard D. Pomp, the Alva P. Loiselle professor at the University of Connecticut School of Law, became one of the biggest draws, if not the draw, at events. Lindholm said that the two would engage in the “great debate” during COST conferences, which were a blend of education and entertainment. And at every single conference, their session would not only generate the highest score, but often would receive a perfect score from every attendee.

Yin, Yang

However, Frankel and Pomp’s animated performances were more an act with two close friends in the lead roles.

“It was impossible not to love the man or even hold a minor grudge,” Pomp wrote. “No one was more generous of spirit. No one more forgiving of human frailties.”

“Paul taught me so much,” he added. “To this day, whenever I have a dilemma to work through, I take a deep breath and ask myself what would Paul do? It will take a long time to accept that I cannot simply call him and find out.”

To read a longer tribute that Pomp wrote to his friend and mentor, please read the Bloomberg BNA SALT Tax blog after March 3.

Bruce P. Ely, the inaugural recipient of the NYU/Frankel award, recalled an amusing story “involving Paul the yin and his yang Rick Pomp as our expert witness.”

During a hearing before Alabama Judge Bill Thompson, Alabama DOR employees packed the room “to watch the Frankel—Pomp Show,” Ely, a partner at Bradley Arant Boult Cummings LLP, told Bloomberg BNA by email. “And they didn’t disappoint.”

On the return trip to Birmingham, the group stopped for peach cobbler and ice cream at Ely’s favorite farmers market “showcasing those awesome Chilton County peaches. Within 15 minutes after we got back on the road, both of them were sound asleep in the back seat like two peas in a pod.”

Mentor, Friend

Practitioners widely shared stories of Frankel’s generosity of friendship and wisdom, and how he forever shaped their careers and enriched their lives.

When COST Programs Director Stephen Rosander made an earlier move to New Jersey, Frankel approached him at a COST conference, playfully noting that “us New Jersey people have to stay together” and inviting him to dinner.

“Over the next ten years, I probably went to dinner at their house a hundred times,” Rosander said, noting that the time spent often covered some of Frankel’s favorite topics—including tax, general history and COST.

Frankel was known as an instrumental figure in COST’s early development and growth, but in typical fashion, he didn’t view it that way. His interest wasn’t with any credit or fame from his career, but rather on the profession as a whole and the individual professionals.

“He always had time for anyone, anytime, to give them advice, give them encouragement, talk an issue, whatever it was,” Rosander said. “Because this is the world that he loved. He loved state tax. He loved everything about it. And it truly was his life.”

Ahead of His Time

And Frankel’s support of his peers wasn’t reserved for a specific class of persons. Several noted his dedication to welcoming women into the profession and supporting their advancement into SALT roles traditionally occupied by men.

“He, unlike some of his counterparts, was particularly supportive of women in general who were moving into the field at a time when there were very few us sitting in the room,” Marilyn A. Wethekam, a partner at Horwood Marcus & Berk Chartered, told Bloomberg BNA by email. “Paul made it a point to mentor and teach the women who attended COST meetings and I was fortunate enough to be in that group.”

“Paul took me under his wing, provided not only guidance with respect to SALT knowledge but also guidance on how to navigate the political waters of the organization,” she added. “Without Paul’s guidance and at times very vocal support I doubt I would have assumed the role as the first female Chair of COST.”

Rules for Life

Frankel’s wisdom wasn’t constrained to professional advice and guidance, but also translated into rules for living a good life and being a good person.

Fields said that when a new associate joined Morrison Foerster, Frankel handed them a one-page document that listed “16 things to be a success in life.” Examples included returning voice messages within 24 hours and taking pride in one’s work.

At some point, he encountered a situation that led to the addition of one rule—treat other people the way you’d want people to treat you. When Fields asked why that point had been left off the original list, Frankel said he “didn’t think you had to tell people that,” believing that simply was the way people were raised.

“But that was the way he led his life,” Fields said. “Just a good, decent person.”

Drury also recalled Frankel’s respect for others, which was rooted in a general philosophy of always looking for the good in people. Not once did he hear Frankel share a negative, uncomplimentary word about anyone. And as Drury moved up the officer chain to become a COST chair—with Frankel’s encouragement from the start—he witnessed how Frankel shared insight and advice “in such a positive, friendly way” during COST board meetings.

“That’s something that Paul was a huge believer in, that everybody should be respected, everybody had a job to do,” Drury said. Even when faced with an adversary, such as a taxing jurisdiction in litigation, Frankel always “understood that they had a job to do. And he just wanted to get the right answer.”

Pocket Calendar

Always a firm believer of keeping commitments, Frankel was known to rely on a makeshift planner. Made up of loose-leaf white and yellow papers, and kept in his front shirt pocket, the “pocket calendar” was forever Frankel’s preferred way to keep track of his future commitments.

Fields recalled that even when the firm issued Blackberrys, Frankel used one but also maintained the pocket system. “He could tell you where he was going to be, what he was going to do for the next five years,” he said.

And this was the system that always prompted Frankel to confirm dinner plans with Rosander.

“Here's a man who is never home, because he’s traveling 31 days of every month, even the month that has only 29 days” Rosander said. “And I would see that the date was coming up, and think, ‘I’m going to call him before he calls me.’” However, always on top of everything, Frankel’s call always would come first.

Key SALT Issues

Frankel often expressed his desire for the U.S. Supreme Court to engage in more SALT cases. In a 2012 interview during a New York CPE event, he resounded his call for the high court to take up more tax cases.

“I think those of us who do state tax know how important it is,” he said. “But the U.S. Supreme Court doesn’t seem to know how important it is. But it’s really important!”

A vocal proponent for independent tax tribunals and, equally, a vocal opponent of pay-to-play requirements prior to protest, Frankel encouraged others to tackle the issues. Fields noted that Frankel was the father of the American Bar Association’s Model State Administrative Tax Tribunal Act.

“We now have a Model Act, because he pushed me to actually draft a Model Act,” Fields said. Fields took the first shot at a draft and was chair of the State and Local Tax Committee task force that worked on it. Outside comments played into the revised document, which ultimately developed into the adopted Model Act that “several states have looked to in basically evolving their state tax systems, getting independent tax courts. And it all began with Paul pushing me to do something like that, because he was such a believer in it.”

Legacy

With Frankel’s passing, many see his legacy not so much in his individual achievements, but with the people left behind.

“While Paul is gone, part of the legacy that he’s leaving is the very bright, intelligent people he encouraged, mentored and helped understand the importance of state and local taxation,” Drury said.

Rosander echoed that sentiment, noting that “he was always so happy to help anyone develop their career that there are so many of them who did do that and are taking up whatever space Paul left when he exited the stage.” However, there is a personal void in that “Paul is gone. And that’s a huge void.”

As others take up the mantle of their friend, colleague and mentor, they all seem to recognize there will be no replacing the “godfather.”

“I don’t think he stepped into anybody’s footsteps, and I don’t see anybody stepping into his,” Fields said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jennifer McLoughlin in Washington at jmcloughlin@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Ryan C. Tuck at rtuck@bna.com

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