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IRS commissioner: Court ruling raises privacy concerns for taxpayers

IRS commissioner: Court ruling raises privacy concerns for taxpayers
© Cameron Lancaster

IRS Commissioner John Koskinen is warning that an appeals court ruling in the agency’s political-targeting scandal could put taxpayers’ privacy at risk.

 “If suddenly, your name on an application and your address is available to the public, I think it’s going to … raise a concern by a lot of taxpayers who may not want anyone else to know what they’re applying for,” Koskinen told reporters Thursday, after delivering a speech at the National Press Club.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled Tuesday that the IRS has to comply with lower-court rulings and provide the NorCal Tea Party Patriots with lists of organizations that were allegedly targeted by the IRS for their political beliefs. NorCal brought a lawsuit against the agency and some of its officials shortly after a federal watchdog released a report in 2013 finding evidence of the targeting of Tea Party groups.

NorCal wants to see the IRS “Be On the Lookout” lists of groups that were allegedly targeted; a federal district court ordered the IRS to produce the lists but it has refused to do so.

The IRS has argued that names and other information from applications for tax-exempt status are confidential “return information.” But the appeals court found that the names, addresses and taxpayer-identification numbers of applicants for tax-exempt status are not protected, and it ordered the IRS to follow the lower courts’s rulings and produce the lists.

The appeals court also criticized the government lawyers involved in the case.

“The lawyers in the Department of Justice have a long and storied tradition of defending the nation’s interests and enforcing its laws—all of them, not just selective ones—in a manner worthy of the Department’s name. The conduct of the IRS’s attorneys in the district court falls outside that tradition,” the ruling stated. “We expect that the IRS will do better going forward.”

Koskinen said the litigation is being reviewed by DOJ, which is handling the case.

But he noted that taxpayers file hundreds of thousands applications to the IRS for various programs each year, such as private-letter rulings and identification PINs. “Taxpayers doing that assume that that’s all private,” he said.

If information about the taxpayers who filed applications is no longer protected “that’s a significant change,” Koskinen added.

Koskinen also said people would be hard-pressed to find evidence the IRS is currently engaging in political targeting.