Republicans Call for Hearing on Possible IRS Leak of Personal Taxpayer Information
Federal agencies took immediate action to investigate how a news organization got ahold of the sensitive information.
House Republicans are calling for an oversight hearing to examine how, if at all, personal tax information that served as the foundation for a recent bombshell news story leaked from the Internal Revenue Service.
ProPublica published on June 8 a report, spanning over 15 years, about how a group of extremely wealthy individuals––such as Elon Musk, Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, Rupert Murdoch and Mark Zuckerberg ––paid little to no income tax by “perfectly legal” means. The nonprofit news organization was given the tax information, which it wrote “is among the most zealously guarded secrets in the federal government,” by an anonymous source. This report sparked a debate over the merits of the U.S. tax system as well as concerns that the personal tax information was leaked to ProPublica by a government employee or employees.
“Every American should have confidence that their personal tax information is secure and safe from privacy violations,” wrote 19 House Republicans, led by Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., ranking member of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, in a letter on Wednesday to Committee Chairwoman Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., asking for a hearing. “Especially as the Biden administration’s proposed budget would vastly increase the size and staffing of the IRS, we are concerned about the potential for future leaks of sensitive tax information, particularly if such leaks are politically motivated and/or targeted against those who may take unpopular positions.”
They added in the letter that “such leaks will continue to deteriorate the American people’s trust in the IRS, and our federal government.” The Republican lawmakers said they would like a hearing with Biden administration officials to try to determine who could be responsible for a leak.
Maloney’s office did not respond for comment by the time of this article’s publication.
As part of his American Families Plan, released on April 28, President Biden is seeking $80 billion for the IRS to boost its enforcement to go after those cheating the tax system as well as restore the agency’s staffing levels. The president’s full budget proposal for fiscal 2022, released on May 28, says he is seeking 6,000 new hires at the Treasury Department as a whole, with the majority going to the IRS.
ProPublica said they were given the information “after we published a series of articles scrutinizing the IRS,” such as on “how years of budget cuts have hobbled the agency’s ability to enforce the law and how the largest corporations and the rich have benefited from the IRS’ weakness.”
Right after the ProPublica story was published, top federal officials immediately reacted and referred the matter to law enforcement and oversight agencies.
When asked for comment on Thursday, the Treasury Department directed Government Executive to a statement released on June 8.
“The unauthorized disclosure of confidential government information is illegal,” said Treasury spokeswoman Lily Adams. “The matter is being referred to the Office of the Inspector General, Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia, all of whom have independent authority to investigate.”
FBI referred to the Treasury Department for comment and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia could not be reached for comment.
“This is an extremely serious matter,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said during a Senate hearing on June 9. “People are entitled obviously to privacy with respect to their tax returns.”
Three ranking House Republicans, including Comer, wrote to Garland on June 10 asking for a staff-level briefing by June 17 about the department’s efforts to investigate the possible leak. The lawmakers have yet to receive a response, according to committee staff.
When asked for comment on the situation, the IRS referred to the testimony from Doug O’Donnell, IRS deputy commissioner for services and enforcement, before the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Oversight on June 10.
O’Donnell said that IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig “immediately referred” the matter to the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration. “We’re very very concerned with the ProPublica reporting that they received IRS information from an unknown source,” he said. “We have strong systems and measures in place to detect unauthorized access that are regularly reviewed by [the tax inspector general] ...we take this matter very seriously.”
He also noted that employees at all levels take training every year on the “prohibition of unauthorized access to information as well as sanctions for disclosing taxpayer information.’
The Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration did not respond for comment.
Also, Rettig told lawmakers during a Senate Finance Committee hearing on June 8 that internal and external investigators are looking into what happened and if there was illegal activity, then those individuals would “absolutely” face prosecution.
“I share the concerns of every American for the sensitive...and confidential nature of the information the IRS receives,” he said. “Trust and confidence in the Internal Revenue Service is sort of the bedrock of asking people and requiring people to provide financial information.”
Despite the speculation there was a leak, it is unclear at this point what really happened. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said before a Senate hearing on Wednesday, “I want to emphasize, we do not know what happened,” as the report was only published a little over a week ago. “We do not have any facts at this point,” and it is not clear if there even was a leak from the IRS, she said.