The Detroit defense lawyer received one letter in November that said he owed the IRS money — five cents.
He was warned that he should pay "to avoid additional penalty and/or interest," the Detroit Free Press reported Saturday.
Howarth says he then received a second letter telling him the government owes him money — four cents.
He was told he would have to request the refund since it's less than $1.
"When I owe them a nickel, I must pay them. It's not optional," he said. "But when they owe me, I have to ask for it."
Howarth says he's not sure if there is a connection between the two notices, or if the refund represents a recalculation of the original bill.
The perplexed lawyer says he called an IRS 800 telephone number but gave up after spending a long time on hold.
IRS spokesman Luis D. Garcia says the agency doesn't comment on individual accounts.