The House Ways and Means Committee may have broken the law when it publicly disclosed confidential taxpayer information in a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder.

An article by David van den Berg in Tax Analysts discusses whether the House Ways and Means Committee violated Section 6103 of the Tax Code on April 9 when it voted to refer former IRS exempt organizations official Lois Lerner to the Justice Department for criminal investigation. The committee accused Lerner of depriving conservative groups of their constitutional rights, impeding official investigations, and putting confidential taxpayer information at risk.

House Ways and Means Committee chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., submitted the referral by letter to Holder, and the committee posted it online. The letter included 80 pages of exhibits and three tables listing organizations that had applied for tax exemption, the status of their applications, and any problems the IRS had identified in their submissions.

“Ways and Means staff maintain that the committee acted within its rights when it posted the organizations' names and details online,” van den Berg wrote. “But several practitioners and scholars who spoke with Tax Analysts were skeptical of those assertions. Some said the committee may have broken the law.”

“The consequences of the committee's disclosure could be serious for the affected organizations and for the congressional process, according to some attorneys and academics,” he added.

Congress enacted taxpayer confidentiality protections in the Tax Reform Act of 1976 to address public concern over government agencies' use of taxpayer information. The statute in Section 6103 requires that tax returns and return information remain confidential except in cases when the Internal Revenue Code expressly says otherwise.

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