Published on Monday, January 9, 2006 by the Associated Press
IRS Said to Improperly Restrict Access
by Michael Sniffen
The Bush administration has illegally stopped making public detailed tax enforcement data, which has been used to show which kinds of taxpayers get the most and toughest audits, a noted tax researcher says.
Syracuse University Professor Susan B. Long said in papers filed in U.S. District Court in Seattle late last week that since Nov. 1, 2004, the Internal Revenue Service has violated a 1976 court order requiring the release of the data.
IRS spokesman Terry Lemons responded Friday, "We do not believe we are in violation of the court order."
Long, who has researched and written about federal tax administration for more than 30 years, used the Freedom of Information Act to win the court order in 1976 directing the revenue agency to provide her regularly with its data on criminal investigations, tax collections, the number and hours devoted to audits by income level and taxpayer category and other enforcement records.
Since 1989, her FOIA requests have been submitted by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a data-research organization at Syracuse of which she is co-director.
TRAC has used the records to report in 2000 that the Clinton administration was auditing poor people at a higher rate than rich people and in 2004 that business and corporate audits were down substantially and criminal tax enforcement was at an all-time low. TRAC also reported that in fiscal 2002-2004 IRS audited on average only a third of the largest corporations, which control 90 percent of all corporate assets and 87 percent of all corporate income.
The 1976 court order listed 38 types of IRS reports, including five produced quarterly, that Long was entitled to receive "promptly" and regularly under the Freedom of Information Act. The court said IRS must continue to make the same statistical data contained in the listed reports available without charge in future years "regardless of the format ... hereafter compiled."
Despite filing regular FOIA requests for the material, the last data Long received arrived Nov. 1, 2004 and covered only the first six months of fiscal year 2004, through March, 2004, she said in an interview.
"They really shut down access," she said. Although the original court order covers some data compiled every three months, Long said in recent years she had shifted mainly to requesting annual data compilations.
But when IRS stopped releasing the data, Long shifted first to six-month, then nine-month, and finally monthly requests "because that's how they compile that data" all without success.
"For years, TRAC requested data on an annual basis from the IRS," agency spokesman Lemons said. "The IRS voluntarily gave TRAC an enormous amount of data beyond what we routinely release to the public, outside of the FOIA process."
But he said TRAC shifted in June 2004 to seeking data monthly. "These were much broader and sweeping requests than TRAC previously sought, with many of the requested data sets not normally gathered by the IRS" since it reorganized in 2000 from geographic divisions to taxpayer-category divisions.
Lemons said "the IRS continues to provide annual data to TRAC just as it has done for years." As evidence he cited a report TRAC issued in April 2005, but that report only contained data through March 2004, which is the last data set Long said she received.
Lemons acknowledged the court order "is still in effect. Nobody disputes that." But he said the agency cannot find copies of the reports from the 1970s listed in the court order to determine exactly which data Long is entitled to. She replied that record retention rules require IRS to keep historical copies of its manual, which describes each record.
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