IRS Watchdog shields records on breach of confidential taxpayer information

The Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) has concluded its review of allegations brought by Cause of Action Institute (CoA Institute) concerning the unlawful disclosure and inspection of more than one million pages of confidential taxpayer information. The agency opened its investigation in July 2016 but now claims it cannot provide any further information about of the outcome of its review because such information is itself protected by confidentiality laws originally intended to protect taxpayers.

In June 2016, CoA Institute called on TIGTA and the Department of Justice Office of Inspector General (DOJ-OIG) to examine potential legal violations arising from the October 2010 disclosure of more than one million pages of tax returns and return information to the FBI and DOJ Public Integrity Section by Lois Lerner and the IRS.  CoA Institute first alerted TIGTA about the possible violation of Section 6103 of the Internal Revenue Code with respect to these records in July 2015. [For more information, see pages 11–15 of CoA Institute’s recent investigative report.]

Just months prior to TIGTA’s response, DOJ-OIG confirmed the unlawful disclosure of taxpayer information but dismissed a request to investigate the wrongdoing.  The IG concluded that CoA Institute was correct that “protected taxpayer information was included” on CDs provided by the IRS to the FBI and DOJ, yet it determined inexplicably that the matter “does not warrant further investigation[.]”

CoA Institute Assistant Vice President Lee A. Steven: “Although it appears that TIGTA has investigated our now-proven allegations of wrongdoing, we are concerned by the lack of transparency surrounding whether the responsible IRS officials will be held accountable for the unlawful disclosure of over one million pages of confidential taxpayer information. Congress never intended taxpayer confidentiality laws to be a shield against the disclosure of information concerning the conduct of officials who have abused their positions and acted in contravention of their duty to protect American taxpayers’ most private information.  This incident involves one of the largest and most significant breaches of taxpayer confidentiality laws by the federal government in U.S. history.  The DOJ-OIG seems to have washed its hands of the matter and it is disappointing to see TIGTA do the same.”

The DOJ Public Integrity Section and the FBI originally sought the records at issue in an attempt to identify non-profit organizations who may have engaged in prohibited political activity.  As part of its public oversight efforts, CoA Institute obtained records demonstrating that, between 2009 and 2012, neither agency ever submitted the statutorily-required requests for disclosure of this information to the IRS.

Section 6103 of the Internal Revenue Code provides a strict rule of confidentiality for tax returns and return information.  Unless a statutory exception applies, government agencies and their employees may not disclose such information.  Violations can include fines, termination from employment, and imprisonment.

To access CoA Institute’s June 29, 2016 Letter to TIGTA and DOJ-OIG, click here.
To access DOJ-OIG’s October 12, 2016 response, click here.
To access TIGTA’s December 19, 2016 response, click here.
To access CoA Institute’s October 2016 Investigative Report, click here.

TIGTA Undermines Taxpayer Privacy

Cause of Action is asking a federal court to grant its motion for summary judgment against the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA).

Cause of Action is seeking enforcement of a prior court order requiring the government to produce records relating to the unauthorized disclosure of taxpayer information to unauthorized White House officials.

Earlier this month, after being forced to admit that it had investigated unauthorized White House access, TIGTA asked the court to allow it to withhold documents under Section 6103 of the tax code. However, section 6103 is meant to protect taxpayers, not the government.

Dan Epstein, Executive Director of Cause of Action, released the following statement:

“Section 6103 was passed to stop White House and other officials from obtaining the tax return information of government critics and political opponents. TIGTA, however, has asked the Court to make the unprecedented ruling that the taxpayer protection law actually shields the identities of the government lawbreakers who requested or obtained tax data without proper authorization. Such a ruling would be both bad law and bad policy. Congress never intended such a thing when it passed the law. And, such a ruling will limit government accountability and encourage future abuse.”

Read the filings below:

Cause of Action Sues TIGTA over Release of Taxpayer Info

Cause of Action filed a lawsuit against the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) for potentially violating the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

TIGTA told Cause of Action in March of this year, in response to a FOIA request, that it could “neither confirm nor deny the existence of records” of communication between the White House and IRS concerning taxpayer information, particularly interactions that were not made pursuant to 6103(g) of the tax code, which authorizes the President to request any individual’s tax return information from the IRS.

Yet, the media reported that TIGTA sent a letter to Senator Charles Grassley July 3, 2013, acknowledging eight instances involving potential unauthorized access or disclosure of tax records belonging to political donors or candidates since 2006.

By revealing to Senator Grassley the existence of these communications, TIGTA has potentially violated FOIA with Cause of Action, therefore we are filing a lawsuit against TIGTA in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

ECF No. 1_Complaint

ECF No. 1-1_Exhibits 1-10 to Complaint

ECF No. 1-2_Civil Cover Sheet

ECF No. 1-3_Summons

Roll Call: Dan Epstein: Congress Is Not the Answer: How We Really Should Be Investigating the IRS

Congress Is Not the Answer: How We Really Should Be Investigating the IRS | Commentary

By Dan Epstein     June 11, 2013, 5 a.m.

Three congressional committees were authorized to (and seemingly did) begin investigations in 2010 of the IRS’ political targeting, yet none of them were able to reveal what the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration reported last month.

Even though TIGTA head J. Russell George has now appeared before multiple committees, no one has questioned why TIGTA chose to examine the IRS’ politicization through an audit instead of an investigation. The Inspector General Act authorizes TIGTA to obtain the production of documentary evidence by subpoenas, yet TIGTA issued none. Item 2 of Treasury Order 115-01 authorizes TIGTA to conduct investigations, issue subpoenas, bring criminal enforcement actions and make referrals to the attorney general for prosecution. Yet none of this happened.

The much-publicized House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on the subject revealed that former IRS Exempt Organizations Director Lois Lerner may have improperly received immunity by taking the Fifth only after pleading her innocence in an opening statement. The White House has claimed executive privilege, refusing to provide information to congressional oversight committees — and without independent prosecutorial authority, Congress can do little other than issue contempt charges, which this administration views as little more than a slap on the wrist. When Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. denied Congress information concerning the “Fast and Furious” scandal, Congress issued a subpoena, held him in contempt, then filed a civil lawsuit, which, as of March, is in mediation; most recently, the DOJ has filed motions to dismiss the case entirely.

Chairmen of both the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee have authority under the tax code to investigate the IRS issues. Under federal law, the Ways and Means Republicans in the House must keep their investigation secret from Finance Republicans in the Senate just like the Senate Finance Democrats must not share protected information with Ways and Means Democrats. That means that not only is there a self-imposed limit to what Congress can do, there is the added dimension of partisanship: both Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., and Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich., are forced to keep Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, in the dark.

If partisanship were not an issue, Congress should have established a committee that under 6103(f)(3) could be empowered with virtually unlimited investigative authority. But that hasn’t happened. Additionally, Congress always has the ability to appoint its own special counsel to investigate the IRS, as well as hire an outside counsel to advise it in its investigations. That hasn’t happened either.

Congress, in 1999, took away DOJ’s power to demand the D.C. Circuit appoint an independent counsel with prosecutorial power equal to the attorney general when high-ranking officials in the federal government engaged in criminal wrongdoing. However, the attorney general (or acting attorney general, in cases in which the attorney general is recused) is still authorized to appoint a special counsel when a criminal investigation of a person or matter is warranted so long as two conditions are met: an investigation or prosecution by a U.S. Attorney’s Office or litigating division of the DOJ would present a conflict of interest, and the public interest requires appointment of counsel independent from the DOJ. We therefore can infer that Holder’s decision to not appoint a special counsel, and instead ask the FBI to investigate the IRS, suggests that Holder believes no “conflict of interest” exists and it’s not in “the public interest” to have any outside scrutiny of the IRS.

Having exhausted the legislative and executive branch options, only the courts are left. Rule 53 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure would allow the federal courts, especially those hearing any of the current challenges to the IRS by tea party groups, to appoint what is called a “special master” to perform investigative and enforcement duties consented to by the parties in the dispute. This also includes authority to conduct an evidentiary hearing and exercise the appointing court’s power to compel, take and record evidence. With a gridlocked Congress and a White House pleading ignorance, the judiciary may be the only government institution capable of providing the thorough and accurate government accountability the American people deserve.

Dan Epstein is the executive director for Cause of Action.

FOIA request to the IRS regarding policies and practices concerning applications for 501(c)(4) status

FOIA Request

CoA requests access to the following records pertaining to the Internal Revenue Service’s (IRS) Exempt Organization (EO) Division for the time period January 1, 2009 to the present:


  1.  Copies of any criteria that the IRS Cincinnati Service Center has used to assess applicants for 501(c)( 4) status;
  2.  Communications from the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) to the EO Division concerning any audit or investigation conducted of the EO Division;
  3. Copies of any Form 990 Schedule B (Schedule of Contributors) released by the IRS to a third party in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, as well as copies of the IRS’s FOIA response letter to that request;
  4. All records, including documents and emails, relating or referring to any disclosure of an exempt organization’s Form 990 Schedule B to any employee, contractor or officer of the Executive Office of the President, excluding any such records disclosed pursuant to 26 U.S.C. § 6103(c) or 26 U.S.C. § 6103(g);
  5. All records, including documents and emails, referring or relating to any request from the President, Vice President, Cabinet official, employee in the Executive Office of the President, or employee in the Executive Office of the Vice President to any officer or employee of the IRS to conduct an audit or other investigation of any particular taxpayer; and a. If any requests are located in response to this item, then all communications between the IRS and TIGTA concerning those requests.

Click Here for the full request

Related work on the IRS:

FOIA Freak-Out: IRS Wrongly Denies FOIA Request, Comes Unglued Over Media Response

Cause of Action letter to the U.S. Attorney Kerry Harvey requesting an investigation of the IRS and their employees in the IRS Cincinnati Service Center in Kentucky for potential violations of the law concerning conspiracy by singling out organizations based on political views stated in their tax-exempt applications.

IRS Is At Risk of Conspiracy