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Data Expert Prevails in Lawsuit Against IRS Secrecy


April 4, 2006

Data Expert Prevails in Lawsuit Against IRS Secrecy

IRS Must Abide by 1976 Agreement and Provide Performance Data by Tax Deadline

SEATTLE – A federal court has ruled in favor of a widely recognized researcher seeking detailed statistics from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) about how the agency enforces the nation’s tax laws. Judge Marsha Pechman of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington ordered the IRS to turn over statistical data to Susan B. Long, a professor at Syracuse University and co-director of the non-profit research organization Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC). 

Long had sought monthly statistical reports from the IRS under the terms of a court order issued in 1976 in a case she filed to compel disclosure of IRS audit and examination data. After the 1976 court order, Long used IRS data to report on, and often criticize, the IRS’s performance for nearly 30 years. In mid-2004, however, the agency stopped complying with the longstanding court order and refused to disclose the information. Long returned to court in January 2006, represented by Scott Nelson with Public Citizen in Washington, D.C., and Eric M. Stahl and Michele Earl-Hubbard with Davis Wright Tremaine LLP in Seattle. 

Pechman ruled Monday that the 1976 order remains enforceable and that IRS claims that producing the data it regularly compiles would be burdensome are unsupported. The court rejected the IRS’s argument that the production of statistical data would violate a statute prohibiting public release of tax return information about individual taxpayers, because there was no evidence that the statistics could be used to identify any taxpayer. The ruling stated that, “[b]ecause Ms. Long seeks to disseminate the information sought in this proceeding to the public, there would be a public benefit from disclosure of the records sought.” It also found that, “Ms. Long’s interest in this matter stretches back 30 years and has both public interest and scholarly components.”

Pechman ordered production of the requested reports within 14 days, placing the IRS under the same compliance deadline (April 17) that the rest of the nation faces for tax returns. The court also ruled that Long is entitled to an award of attorneys’ fees for enforcing the order. 

“It is essential that a powerful agency like the IRS live by the law,” Long said today in response to TRAC’s legal victory. “This ruling, which requires the agency to abide by the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and provide TRAC with information about how it is collecting the nation’s taxes, is a win for the American people, who want to assure themselves that the IRS is operating in a fair and effective manner.” 

Long is a professor of management information and decision sciences at Syracuse University’s Martin J. Whitman School of Management. Since 1989, she has also been co-director of TRAC, which provides the public with detailed information about the operation of hundreds of federal agencies, including the IRS. The reports are made available to the public on TRAC’s Web site.

Scott Nelson of Public Citizen lauded the ruling. “The court’s decision not only vindicates the public’s right to information but also serves as a powerful reminder to agencies that the courts can hold them accountable and that they act at their peril if they disregard court orders.”

TRAC also has FOIA suits pending against the Justice Department’s Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys and the Office of Personnel Management. In addition, TRAC has administrative FOIA requests seeking data and other information from the Justice Department’s Civil Division, the Executive Office for Immigration Review and several agencies within the Department of Homeland Security.

Public Citizen has litigated more than 300 cases under FOIA in the past 35 years, winning most of them and forcing government agencies to disclose information that is gathered at taxpayer expense and that allows the public to exercise needed oversight of the government.

A copy of Monday’s ruling is available here.