A judge has ruled against the Internal Revenue Service in a Freedom of Information Act case, telling the agency to stop defying her previous orders and turn over statistical information to an outside researcher.
The case dates back to 1976 when graduate student Susan Long prevailed in an FOIA lawsuit against the IRS, and the agency had to begin providing her with audit and examination data. After the court order, Long used the IRS data to report on the IRS's performance for nearly 30 years.
However, in 2004, the agency stopped complying and refused to provide the information, claiming that the data would violate taxpayer privacy. Long, now a professor at Syracuse University and co-director of its Transactional Records Clearing House, filed suit in 2006. She has obtained a court order from Judge Marsha Pechman of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington, who ruled that the 1976 court order remains enforceable.
The ruling requires the IRS to turn over thousands of pages of agency statistics to TRAC, to produce data electronically and stop redacting the information, and to produce samples of other requested statistical information. Judge Pechman further denied the IRS's requests that the consent decree be modified, holding that the IRS was not in a position to request relief because it had violated her orders.
Long estimates that the IRS will initially have to turn over approximately 100,000 pages of statistical tables and probably 10,000 pages per month thereafter. "We're talking voluminous, a treasure trove," she said.
The data will concern tax audits, including comprehensive details on the audits of individuals, detailed reason for tax audits, how priorities have changed over time, how much time the IRS is spending on audits, and official priorities on large corporate audits, tax shelters and pass-through entities, providing a detailed picture of IRS policies and practices. "We are going to be getting details down to geography, where the revenue agents are actually stationed," said Long.
The IRS has been given 30 days from the date of the order to turn over all of the pending material that TRAC has requested, and TRAC will need to make monthly requests for new material. Long is unsure whether the IRS will appeal the judge's decision, but noted that the judge had refused to issue a stay two years ago. "They had been employing all kinds of evasive tactics and she slammed the door on each one," said Long.
The IRS said it is evaluating its options. "The IRS takes very seriously its responsibilities under the Freedom of Information Act and the requirement under the statute that the agency produce agency records upon request," said a statement forwarded by an IRS spokesman. "FOIA, however, also provides for the exemption from disclosure those records that are specifically protected by statute. The service is studying the opinion, will consult with the Justice Department, and cannot otherwise comment on a pending case."
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