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WASHINGTON — In a significant victory for transparency advocates, a federal judge today ordered the IRS to turn over potential requests that the White House may have made to the agency in search of private taxpayer information.
Judge Amy Berman Jackson of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia wrote that the IRS cannot hide behind taxpayer confidentiality laws, known as section 6103 of the tax code, in order to refuse to say whether those records may exist.
Cause of Action Executive Director Dan Epstein issued the following statement in response to today’s ruling:
“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.”
In her opinion, Judge Berman Jackson wrote:
“Congress amended section 6103 in 1976 ‘in the wake of Watergate and White House efforts to harass those on its ‘enemies list,’’ in order to ‘restrict government officers and employees from revealing ‘any return’ or ‘return information,’’ and its ‘core purpose’ is to ‘protect taxpayer privacy.’
“So, this Court questions whether section 6103 should or would shield records that indicate that confidential taxpayer information was misused, or that government officials made an improper attempt to access that information.
“The IRS argues that ‘section 6103’s definition of ‘return information’ . . . makes no distinction based on the purpose for which a person might seek disclosure of the documents.’ But accepting this argument would require a finding that even requests for return information that could involve a violation of section 6103 constitute ‘return information’ that is exempt from disclosure under FOIA Exemption 3 and section 6103.
“The Court is unwilling to stretch the statute so far, and it cannot conclude that section 6103 may be used to shield the very misconduct it was enacted to prohibit.”
Cause of Action filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (“TIGTA”) and the Internal Revenue Service (“IRS”) to discover any records of an investigation into whether unauthorized officials at the White House may have illegally accessed private taxpayer information.
We sent this FOIA after TIGTA admitted that it had launched such a review in response to a letter from six Republican senators. However, TIGTA’s forthcoming report was never released to the senators or the public.
Our FOIA request to both agencies was then divided into two separate FOIA lawsuits; one against the IRS and one against TIGTA. The court’s holding today requires the IRS to go back and search for records that it previously tried to shield from disclosure.