The co-directors of a data research center have filed a federal Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the Internal Revenue Service, claiming that the agency is illegally withholding information about its operations.

The lawsuit, filed Thursday by the Public Citizen Litigation Group on behalf of the Syracuse-based Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, requests information about the databases and programs that the IRS uses to generate reports and tabulate statistics. It is part of an ongoing effort by TRAC -- a non-partisan research center at Syracuse University that disseminates federal government statistical information -- to get statistical information from the IRS about enforcement actions.

The IRS did not return a call for comment.

Plaintiffs Susan B. Long and David Burnham, co-directors of TRAC, are represented in the lawsuit by Scott Nelson. Long is an associate professor of management information and decision sciences at Syracuse University's Whitman School of Management. Burnham, a former New York Times investigative reporter and author of a book about the IRS, is an associate research professor at the Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse.

According to the plaintiffs, the IRS has resisted releasing the data -- despite a consent decree from prior litigation that requires the IRS to make statistical information available to TRAC on a regular, ongoing basis -- asserting that it would have to be specially compiled, since the agency no longer keeps basic statistics about audits, appeals and collection activities that would provide details to support the agency's broad assertions about IRS current practices.

According to a statement issued by TRAC about the lawsuit, Long and Burnham submitted three FOIA requests in November 2004 for information about the IRS's database, all of which were denied. In two cases, the IRS sent back letters claiming that the requested documents had been designated for "Internal Use" only. The letter said, "We are not denying the release of the document; it is an agency policy not to release 'Internal Use' documents to the public."

In denying the other request -- which sought the release of an IRS manual describing information systems used to compile statistical information and numerical measures used to analyze the agency's operations -- the plaintiffs said that the IRS cited "new federal security requirements." In the past, TRAC noted that the manual was available on the IRS's Web site.

The lawsuit claims that there is no valid exemption under FOIA for the IRS's refusal to release the documents, that agency officials have no authority to designate documents for "Internal Use" only, and that the documents fall far outside the scope of statutorily protected "critical infrastructure information" related to homeland security. The plaintiffs also are asking for a court finding that would be a first step toward subjecting responsible agency officials to possible disciplinary action for "arbitrarily and capriciously" withholding the documents from the public.

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