Treasury Department IG Refused FOIA on Austan Goolsbee Investigation

Goolsbee was alleged to have illegally examined Koch Industries tax records

Austan Goolsbee / AP
July 5, 2013

The Treasury Department on Wednesday refused to confirm or deny the existence of an inspector general report investigating whether or not former White House economic adviser Austan Goolsbee illegally accessed tax information on the Koch brothers.

The Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA), in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request filed by the Washington Free Beacon, declined to acknowledge the existence of the report.

"With regard to your request for documents pertaining to a third party, TIGTA can neither admit nor deny the existence of responsive records," said in its response. "Your request seeks access to the types of documents for which there is no public interest that outweighs the privacy interests established and protected by the FOIA (5 U.S.C. §§ 552(b)(7)(C) and (b)(6))."

Former White House Council of Economic Advisers chairman Austan Goolsbee sparked a mini-scandal in 2010 when he told reporters during a background press briefing that Koch Industries—the company of libertarian philanthropists Charles and David Koch—paid no income taxes.

Conservative lawmakers and activists said Goolsbee’s statements not only unfairly singled out the president’s political opponents but also used confidential IRS documents to do so.

TIGTA announced in response to a letter from six Republican senators it was launching an investigation into Goolsbee’s comments and whether he violated the law. However, the report was never released to the senators or the public.

The Washington Examiner obtained an Aug. 10, 2011, email from Treasury Special Agent Daniel K. Carney, in which he wrote, "The final report relative to the investigation of Austan Goolsbee's press conference remark is completed, has gone through all the approval processes."

Koch Industries also filed a FOIA request in 2011 and received a similar response.

The response from TIGTA essentially argues that the privacy rights of a former White House adviser trump the public interest in whether or not he illegally accessed the tax information of a private company owned by the president’s political opponents.

"Almost three years since his remarks and the inspector general’s investigation of those remarks, we still don’t know what Mr. Goolsbee really relied upon nor has it ever been explained why Mr. Goolsbee was talking about Koch in the first place," Koch Industries legal counsel Mark Holden told the Free Beacon in May.

Goolsbee himself has yet to clear the air; in a tweet written in May, he offered yet another explanation as to how he received the confidential IRS filings of Koch Industries.

"There was no secret info on koch bros. It came from here," Goolsbee tweeted, linking to a St. Petersburg Times article. "But was a mistake–one of the other Koch bros."

The White House has consistently denied that it peeked at Koch Industries tax documents. However, it has offered shifting explanations for where Goolsbee got his info.

An administration official told Politico the White House got the information from testimony before the President’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board (PERAB) and from Koch’s own website.

When then-White House press secretary Robert Gibbs was asked to name the sources, he dithered.

"I don’t know the answer off the top of my head on that," Gibbs said. "Again, I can see if there’s better information on that."

The White House later said Goolsbee was just repeating something he recalled reading.

The refusal to confirm or deny the existence of records is what’s commonly known as a "Glomar response," and is frequently used by the federal government when national security or privacy is concerned.