It was just two months ago that Internal Revenue Service Commissioner Mark W. Everson touted his agency's enforcement results for the 2005 fiscal year.
In public remarks that ran mostly like a recitation of statistics, Everson said that at the mid-point of his five-year term heading up the agency, strong progress continued to be made on one of his three main goals -- the enhancement of enforcement activities.
Funnily enough, it was just a little more than a year into Everson's term, May 2004, that the newly enforcement-focused IRS made the decision to stop providing a Syracuse University professor detailed records of its audits of major corporations and individuals in the highest tax brackets. The agency added that after providing the records free of charge to Dr. Susan Long for nearly 30 years, if such data were to again be made available to the public in the future, the information would cost $12,000 a month for electronic copies.
In early January, Long and the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, sued the IRS. TRAC, a data-research group at Syracuse where Long serves as co-director, has submitted her requests under the Freedom of Information Act since 1989.
It will be a return trip to the court for Long, who first sued the agency 30 years ago in Seattle and won an order requiring the disclose of the information related to criminal investigations, tax collections, the number and hours devoted to audits by income level and taxpayer category and other enforcement records. In recent years, she has made the data available on the Internet at http://trac.syr.edu/, alongside tools for people to conduct their own analyses of the efficiency, effectiveness and evenhandedness of the IRS and other federal agencies.
Long says that IRS officials have told here they were unaware of the original 1976 decision, and publicly, the IRS has said that regardless of the original decision, the information Long requests goes well beyond the requirements set under the Freedom of Information Act.
Judged by public remarks alone, there's no reason the IRS shouldn't want the details of its recent enforcement work public. In the most rosy of his November 2005 comments, Everson said that enforcement revenues -- the funds being received from the IRS collection, examination and document matching activities -- are up by 10 percent, to a record $47.3 billion. He also said that individual returns audited increased by over 20 percent, to 1.2 million in 2004.
Audits of individuals with incomes over $100,000 also surpassed 221,000 -- the highest figure in 10 years, though Everson said that the coverage rate in this category, at 1.58 percent, is still too low. And Everson also noted that in the year ending Sept. 30, 2005, audits of small businesses organized as corporations turned up after years of decline. More than 17,800 were completed in 2005, compared to less than 7,300 a year earlier; and, audits of larger corporations also increased (those with assets over $10 million), up 14 percent from a year ago, to 10,878.
In statements, Long has framed her case partly against the Bush administration and the decrease of transparency into the work of federal agencies. In fact, TRAC's motion in the Western District of Washington is only its latest. Among other information requests filed against federal agencies, TRAC brought a lawsuit in April against the IRS, alleging that the agency was illegally withholding selected information about its operations, with the agency claiming that some of the requested material would compromise homeland security without providing substantiation.
TRAC has a record of exposing interesting nuggets from a dearth of information. The group's most recent IRS report, issued in April 2005, cited agency data showing that while the largest corporations controlled 90 percent of all corporate assets and 87 percent of all corporate income in fiscal year 2004, only one out of three of the corporations had been audited that year. A year earlier, the report found that business and corporate audits were substantially down and that criminal enforcement of the tax laws was at an all time low.
And the revelations have been coming since before the Bush administration entered power, and rarely, if ever, draw a public response from the federal agency under fire. In recent years, TRAC's 2000 IRS report pointed to data showing that tax collectors under the Clinton administration were auditing poor people at a higher rate than the rich.
The case could go to trial as early as this month. Here's hoping Long gets another courtroom win, because transparency isn't about the public listening to the recitation of a federal agency's highlights alone.
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