The Internal Revenue Service failed to comply with Freedom of Information Act requirements for about 11 percent of the requests it received for information, according to a new report.
The report, from the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, comes at a sensitive time for both the IRS and the Inspector General’s office, when both face lawsuits from conservative watchdog groups over their failure to turn over emails and other information related to the scandal involving applications for tax-exempt status.
The report was released because TIGTA is required to conduct periodic audits to determine if the IRS properly denied written requests for taxpayer information. TIGTA is also required to include the results in one of its Semiannual Reports to Congress. The report, which was released last week, is TIGTA’s fifteenth review of denials of the FOIA, Privacy Act and Section 6103 information requests. Section 6103 of the Tax Code pertains to confidentiality and disclosure of returns and return information.
TIGTA reviewed a statistically valid sample of 62 FOIA and Privacy Act information requests out of a population of 2,973 FOIA and Privacy Act requests and found seven of them (or 11.3 percent) in which taxpayer rights may have been violated because the IRS improperly withheld or failed to adequately search for and provide information to the requestors.
The IRS also did not meet requirements because it failed to adequately search for and provide information in eight of 53 sampled Section 6103 information requests (or 15.1 percent). When the sample results are projected to their respective populations, approximately 336 FOIA and Privacy Act and 17 Section 6103 information requests may have had information erroneously withheld.
TIGTA found that responses to all of the FOIA and Privacy Act information requests sampled were timely. However, there are no statutory time frames within which the IRS must respond to Section 6103 information requests, TIGTA pointed out.
In addition, sensitive taxpayer information was inadvertently disclosed in response to 13 (21.0 percent) of the FOIA and Privacy Act and one (1.9 percent) of the Section 6103 information requests reviewed.
TIGTA made no recommendations in the report. However, TIGTA noted that once the corrective actions in response to recommendations it made in its fiscal year 2013 report on the same issues are fully implemented, they should address this year’s findings.
The IRS agreed with the report’s results and said it would continue to ensure that the provisions of the FOIA, the Privacy Act and Section 6103 are followed.
“The IRS is committed to implementing openness in government to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration,” wrote Mary J. Howard, director of privacy, governmental liaison and disclosure at the IRS. “We appreciate your recognition of the positive steps taken by the IRS to effectively manage our Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) backlog and will continue to work towards processing our information requests in a timely and quality manner. We take our responsibility to maintain confidential information seriously and instruct our employees to protect the privacy interests of those seeking information through the FOIA and the various other Internal Revenue Code (IRC) Section 6103 provisions. We implemented mandatory training to address inadvertent disclosures and require employees to certify annually that they understand their responsibilities.”
Howard also provided clarification on one of the main findings in the report, pointing out that the unauthorized disclosures of taxpayer information did not include sensitive information. “Although the unauthorized disclosures identified in the report were unfortunate and inadvertent, the information released in many of these instances did not include any sensitive information that could be misused by the recipient,” she wrote. “The impact to the IRS and taxpayers in question was minimal based upon what was released and to whom. The IRS recognizes the importance of providing accurate responses and is taking steps to strengthen our management and quality controls to avoid future inadvertent disclosures.”
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