The people behind the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse are celebrating a recent court victory that reinstated the nonprofit organization's access to statistical data from the Internal Revenue Service.The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington handed down a decision in April stating that the IRS must comply with TRAC's request for data.

The recent court case centered around the fact that the IRS stopped providing TRAC with certain statistical information in 2002 - information that TRAC has used for decades to compile reports and studies.

The information TRAC uses is made available through the Freedom of Information Act, but TRAC co-director Susan Long has had to go to court on numerous occasions to secure access to the data.

In the current lawsuit, a judge ruled that TRAC's 30-year-old court order that provided the opportunity for obtaining information from the IRS still stands, and the IRS is required to continue providing Long with information.

The IRS contended that many of the reports covered by the original order are no longer being produced, and that the agency therefore no longer has an obligation to provide information to TRAC.

The court, however, saw things differently. "The IRS's argument is not persuasive," according to the court order. While all parties agreed that some of the reports originally provided to Long are no longer being produced, the original consent order from 1976 requires the IRS to provide data "similar" to the type of data originally requested. Some reports are no longer available, but there is similar data available in different reports, and the IRS is now obligated to make those reports available.

"The data contained in the two reports need not be identical in all respects in order to be 'similar,'" according to the new court order.

The IRS declined comment on the ruling.

In court, the IRS objected to providing Long with certain data on the grounds that some of it, found in a report called Audit Information Management System Table 37, might include information that could be identified with a specific taxpayer who had been audited.

Long countered with a statement that a reader of the report would not be able to identify a specific taxpayer without already knowing that they had been audited, and the court concurred that the IRS position was "speculative at best."

Long said that she was elated when she heard the news that the court had ordered in her favor. "I was bouncing off the walls at the time." However, she added, "It wasn't really a surprise, in the sense that they never really had a reason not to provide the data."

TRAC reported that the IRS delivered some audit reports to the organization's attorneys on April 17, in time to meet the court deadline. No further information was available as press time.

The TRAC record

TRAC was an outgrowth of a graduate studies project of Long's when she was a doctoral student at the University of Washington in the late 1970s. At that time, she won a consent order under the FOIA to obtain information from the IRS. Long relocated to Syracuse University, where she became director of the school's Center for Tax Studies. She currently is a professor of management information and decision sciences at the Martin J. Whitman School of Management at Syracuse.

Long teamed up with writer David Burnham, who, at the time, was a New York Times investigative reporter, and the two founded TRAC for the purpose of providing "comprehensive information about federal staffing, spending and the enforcement activities of the federal government," according to the organization's Web site.

In the tax arena, TRAC has been in the public eye on a number of controversial issues. In 2000, TRAC provided information used by several major U.S. newspapers to expose the issue of the IRS concentrating its audit efforts on poor people.

More recently, TRAC statistics were used to show that, contrary to statements made by IRS Commissioner Mark Everson, big corporation tax audits are on the decline.

Meanwhile, Long explained that, in an attempt to determine exactly what reports TRAC wants to request, she has sent the IRS several requests trying to determine the names and numbers of reports that the agency is now preparing.

"We just got a turndown yesterday saying in no uncertain terms could they release any information about anything else that they're doing," Long said. "They're not making it easy or being particularly cooperative."

"It's really quite shocking to have a tax agency that expects cooperation and transparency on the part of the American public to file take this kind of position that's clearly beyond the law," Long continued. "It makes no sense."

In the past year, TRAC has submitted nearly 100 requests challenging the withholding of information. According to an article on the TRAC Web site, "IRS letters have included the nonsensical claim that it was 'not denying release of the document' requested by TRAC, it was only withholding it."

TRAC's 30 years' worth of data collection have provided information for myriad people doing research on tax issues. "Members of the public, tax accountants, tax attorneys, members of the news media, educators, folks in government, even the U.S. Supreme Court subscribes to the Web site, so it's a huge raft of people," said Long.

TRAC also analyzes data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Drug Enforcement Agency, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and the Department of Homeland Security, among others.

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