IRS: 30 is about 7000, but we won’t tell you why

Suddenly, IRS Audit info has became a matter of national security (yes, I’m being facetious)

A federal judge has ordered the IRS to resume providing enforcement data to a noted tax researcher, two years after the Bush administration stopped making the information public.
U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman told the agency Monday to turn over the data within two weeks to Syracuse University Professor Susan Long. The judge also awarded her attorneys fees.
Long is the co-director of the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a data-research organization at Syracuse. She has studied the IRS data to evaluate the agency’s performance since 1976, when she was a doctoral student at the University of Washington and used the Freedom of Information Act to win a federal court order requiring access to the data.

It is not clear why the information is no longer being provided to the public, specifically why it is EXEMPT from being provided. The FOIA law is clear, the info must be provided unless there is a reason it is exempt (national security, personal information, etc.).

The information Long sought is the data that the IRS provides to its managers to evaluate how well its audit system works. For example, it gives detailed information on how many people are being audited in what tax brackets and what parts of the country.

I could make an extreme argument here that if the data shows that someone making over $500M in Seattle was audited, that means Bill Gates, so his privacy must be protected. Right.

In mid-2004, the IRS stopped making the data public, and in January, Long asked a federal judge to force the agency to comply with the 1976 court order.
The agency claimed it no longer produces the specific reports covered by the 1976 order, and that the data reports it now uses include more information. Requiring a release of more information than called for by the 1976 order would unduly burden the agency, its lawyers argued.
“The IRS’s argument is not persuasive,” Pechman said in her ruling.
She noted that if the release of certain data is required by law, the IRS can’t withhold that information just because releasing it would also make extra information public.

Having experience with servicing FOIA requests (5+ years ago) I have a good idea of how this came about. First you have to realize that except for the couple of folks specializing in FOIA in an organization, no manpower hours are allocated for the real work of FOIA, such as searching the archives to find a piece of paper that might be responsive to the request. All regular work stops while you go through the archives (hint, get rid of your archives, that is what the reality has become). If you find something, you then spend days redacting the info for classified or protected (like people’s SSNs) information. It is infinitely easier to modify your info so there are “no documents.” It then becomes a cat and mouse game between the requester and the agency, both making each other’s lives miserable. If you can hide your data, you don’t have to respond to the troublesome public. On the other hand, the requestors have excessively broad data requests (state every time a Forestry Service outhouse was used in 1995 — really, requests like that come in; can you imagine staffing that — but — no record responsive to your request is a problem, because if you have a record of a congressman visiting a new solar powered outhouse…).

I remember once calling a requestor on a speaker phone from the FOIA office, recorder running (too many legal issues) and asking what exactly is it that you want? We don’t have the manpower to look through every piece of paper we’ve produced in the past 5 years that might meet your vague description. However, in this case, it looks like the IRS decided to stifle outside analysis by changing its metrics.

Long said that a recent flap could have been avoided if the IRS hadn’t stopped providing the information. Last month, the records clearinghouse published a report – based on the limited audit information available in the agency’s annual publication – that last year tax agents conducted traditional, face-to-face audits of only 30 tax returns filed by people who reported earning more than $1 million.
Following the report, the IRS said its own published data were incorrect, and that the actual number of audits was more than 7,000, or 5 percent of the nation’s millionaires – five times the rate for the population as a whole.
Long said that having access to the raw audit data would have easily avoided the confusion.

Oops. Openness in government is a necessity in a democracy. Bureaucrats try to hide their errors. Someone decided to get rid of embarrassing data by changing the metrics.

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Richard Gardner
About Richard Gardner
Richard Gardner is a “retired” Navy Submarine Officer with military policy, arms control, and budgeting experience. He contributed over 100 pieces to OTB between January 2004 and August 2008, covering special events. He has a BS in Engineering from the University of California, Irvine.



    IRS is already trying to undermine privacy of taxpayer records. What do you expect?