US law requires the IRS to keep confidential the material submitted by applicants for tax-exempt status until an adjudication on the application has been finalized. What happens when they violate this law? Amazingly, as John Eastman learned when the IRS leaked the information he supplied for the National Organization for Marriage to its most vociferous opponents, the IRS claims that the privacy law forbids anyone to investigate the IRS’ violation of the very same law (via Ace, emphasis his):
In March 2012, the organization, which argues the case for traditional marriage, found out its confidential tax information had been obtained by the Human Rights Campaign, one of its primary opponents in the marriage debate. The HRC put the leaked information on its website—including the names of NOM donors. The NOM not only has the legal right to keep its donors’ names private, it has to, because when contributors’ names have been revealed in the past they have been harassed, boycotted and threatened. This is a free speech right, one the Supreme Court upheld in 1958 after the state of Alabama tried to compel the NAACP to surrender its membership list.
The NOM did a computer forensic investigation and determined that its leaked IRS information had come from within the IRS itself. If it was leaked by a worker or workers within the IRS it would be a federal crime, with penalties including up to five years in prison.
In April 2012, the NOM asked the IRS for an investigation. The inspector general’s office gave them a complaint number. Soon they were in touch. Even though the leaked document bore internal IRS markings, the inspector general decided that maybe the document came from within the NOM. The NOM demonstrated that was not true.
For the next 14 months they heard nothing about an investigation. By August 2012, the NOM was filing Freedom of Information Act requests trying to find out if there was one. The IRS stonewalled. Their “latest nonresponse response,” said Mr. Eastman, claimed that the law prohibiting the disclosure of confidential tax returns also prevents disclosure of information about who disclosed them. Mr. Eastman called this “Orwellian.” He said that what the NOM experienced “suggests that problems at the IRS are potentially far more serious” than the targeting of conservative organizations for scrutiny.
Ace has a hilarious and on-point criticism, casting this interaction in the form of a joke:
NOM: I want to know who broke the law protecting confidentiality of taxpayer information.
IRS: We can’t tell you that.
NOM: Why not?
IRS: The law protecting the confidentiality of taxpayer information protects the confidentiality of those who break the law of protecting the confidentiality of taxpayer information.
That’s the joke version. It also happens to be the actual account of the IRS’ position.
This claim could never have survived in court, but that’s not the point. FOIA requests aren’t answered by someone in a call center; they go to the legal department in an agency with more lawyers than there are players in the NFL at any one time. This is the official face of the IRS, where laws intended to protect citizens from abuse by the agency get perverted into shields against accountability, while higher-ups exploit their power to intimidate political opponents.
This goes beyond a few “low-level employees.” This speaks to the culture within the IRS, and it’s a culture that is commonly seen when extraordinary power meets a vacuum of accountability. That’s something all Americans should fear — and work to either change or eliminate.