Man, the IRS just can’t catch a break, can it? Some days I actually start to feel bad for them. (Okay… that was a lie, but I reflexively want to say it for some reason.) One aspect of the Lois Lerner fiasco which has gotten slightly less attention than Lerner herself and her mysteriously disappearing and reappearing emails is the allegation that the White House had been requesting the tax information of certain conservative groups as well. Up until now any and all FOIA requests for such correspondence with the White House has been refused, citing the privacy of taxpayers under federal statute. But now a judge has handed down a ruling saying that this excuse isn’t going to fly. (Fox News)
White House emails to the IRS about individual tax returns cannot be exempted by the embattled agency under the Freedom of Information Act, a federal judge ruled Friday.
United States District Court for the District of Columbia Judge Amy Berman Jackson ruled that Section 6103 of the tax code does not justify the IRS from withholding from FOIA requesters by refusing to say whether the records exist. She ordered the IRS to respond properly to an FOIA request submitted by the non-profit watchdog group Cause of Action.
“As we have said all along, this administration cannot misinterpret the law in order to potentially hide evidence of wrongdoing. No administration is above the law, and we are pleased that the court has sided with us on this important point,” said Daniel Bernstein, executive director of Cause of Action.
We covered part of this here last year, but given the nature of the ruling it’s worth another quick look. The press can’t just ask for the tax returns of citizens under a FOIA request and expect to get them. In fact, there are only very specific cases where the IRS can legally expose anyone’s tax returns to anybody. The exceptions to that rule are spelled out exhaustively in 26 U.S. Code § 6103. Most of them are the ones you would expect. Family members, executors of wills, appointed agents handing tax matters for those unable to do so themselves… those can all be handled legally. Certain bodies within Congress can also request tax records for approved purposes, such as the Joint Committee on Taxation, provided they are exposed only in closed session. (That one should be a no brainer.)
But for some odd reason, when that legislation was crafted they tacked on a strange caveat in section (g) which allows the President to request tax records, provided he or she supplies a “specific reason why the inspection or disclosure is requested.” There don’t seem to be any limits on what that “reason” could be… they just have to give one.
Since this entire mess blew up the White House has been trying to claim that the IRS can’t turn their requests over because of the restrictions in this law, but that’s never really made any sense. If the request was for the response to the White House request which would include the taxpayer information then clearly they would be able to deny it. But there is no tax information in the requests which the President sent to the IRS… just the names of the persons or groups.
Sounds like the judge got this one right. And it might be very informative for all of us to see those requests, not only to see whose tax records President Obama was perusing, but what “specific reason for the inspection or disclosure” was listed. Get out the popcorn. This could be very interesting indeed.