Issues

Audit: IRS Improperly Denied Information to Taxpayers

Inspector general says taxpayer rights may have been violated in FOIA cases

IRS building / AP

The IRS may have violated taxpayers’ rights when they improperly denied information to those who filed a Freedom of Information Act request to the agency, according to an audit from the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration.

When an individual files a FOIA request, the federal government is required to make records available except in the case of certain narrow exemptions.

The auditors evaluated a sample of 60 FOIA requests that were denied or had no responsive records from Oct. 1, 2014 through Sept. 30, 2015 and found that seven of them, or 11.7 percent, were cases in which the IRS improperly withheld information.

"The seven cases we identified included improperly withheld information related to the taxpayers’ own cases with the IRS, e.g. bank statements, examination materials, and other tax return information," the auditors said. "Although the IRS properly released thousands of pages from these documents, taxpayer rights still may have been violated because these information requests had some information erroneously withheld."

Based on this information, the auditors project that of the total 2,720 FOIA requests that were filed during this time frame, 317 may have had information improperly denied.

The auditors found two cases in which sensitive taxpayer information such as bank account numbers, credit scores, and names from a business report were inadvertently disclosed in response to FOIA requests.

Additionally, the audit found that the number of backlogged FOIA requests has increased during the last three years.

"At the end of fiscal year 2015, there was a 15.8 percent increase in the number of backlogged FOIA requests (367 requests) compared to the number of backlogged FOIA requests at the end of fiscal year 2014 (317 requests)," the report states. "This increase follows a 46 percent increase for fiscal year 2014."

"The IRS remains committed to openness in government to ensure public trust and to support the ideals of transparency, public participation and collaboration," said Edward Killen, a director at the Privacy, Governmental Liaison, and Disclosure Office at the IRS.