updated 1/3/2009 12:31:13 PM ET 2009-01-03T17:31:13

James Howarth is a little confused by two letters he has received from the Internal Revenue Service.

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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 said 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 said 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 said he called an IRS 800 telephone number but gave up after spending a long time on hold.

IRS spokesman Luis D. Garcia said the agency doesn't comment on individual accounts.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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