The Internal Revenue Service has stopped providing detailed statistics to a tax expert, violating a court order she obtained 30 years ago...

Share story

The Internal Revenue Service has stopped providing detailed statistics to a tax expert, violating a court order she obtained 30 years ago, according to a motion filed in Seattle federal court.


Susan B. Long, a Syracuse University professor and co-director of a data-research group called Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), asserts that since 2004, the IRS has knowingly failed to comply with a 1976 consent decree that it admits it remains bound by.


The IRS on Friday denied it is in violation of the decree.


“The IRS recognizes the importance of openness and the sharing of data with the public,” the agency said in a prepared statement. “For years, TRAC requested data on an annual basis from the IRS. The IRS voluntarily gave TRAC an enormous amount of data beyond what we routinely release to the public, outside of the FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] process. These were given at no cost to TRAC in the spirit of cooperation and in an effort to be helpful. These efforts cost the government — and taxpayers — thousands of staff hours.”


Long, who started battling the IRS for information when she was a doctoral student at the University of Washington in the 1970s and who still maintains a residence in Bellevue, said the agency’s decision to violate the consent degree is reason for concern.


Noting that money is the lifeblood of government, she said the IRS is vested with “all sorts of special powers.” As a result, the agency “needs checks and balances to make sure it’s run fairly and effectively,” Long contended, “and in a democracy, having access to information about how it’s utilizing that [its powers] is enormously important.”


Long said a public Web page maintained by her group (http://trac.syr.edu/) contains tens of thousands of pages of information and attracts between 5 million and 6 million hits a year.


Based partly on data that Long has been collecting from the IRS under the old consent decree, TRAC has produced a series of authoritative reports about the IRS. They include a 2000 study that showed that Clinton administration’s tax collectors were auditing poor people at a higher rate than rich people, and a 2004 report that found that business and corporate audits were substantially down, and that criminal enforcement of the tax laws was at an all-time low.


Long said the IRS’ changed attitude toward compliance corresponds with a change at the top in 2003, when Mark W. Everson, then a deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, succeeded Charles O. Rossotti as IRS commissioner.


Commissioners serve five-year terms.


Long said Rossotti “believed in transparency” but with Everson at the helm, the agency “just started shutting down.”


In her motion, Long noted that the original consent decree called on the IRS to produce “statistical data regardless of the format or particular categorization, which are hereafter compiled and are similar to that contained” in certain reports. In its prepared statement, the IRS said that starting in June 2004, TRAC began submitting FOIA requests for data on a monthly basis.


“These were much broader and sweeping requests than TRAC previously sought, with many of the requested data sets not normally gathered by the IRS. …


“Contrary to TRAC’s claims, the IRS continues to provide annual data to TRAC — just as it has done for years.”


Long’s case has been assigned to U.S. District Judge Ricardo Martinez. No decision on her motion is likely before next month at the earliest.


In addition to asking the court to make the IRS comply with the consent decree, Long is seeking attorney’s fees and expenses.


Peter Lewis: 206-464-2217 or plewis@seattletimes.com