Citizens who flout the Internal Revenue Service face the prospect of jail, but when the IRS flouts the law, it’s business as usual. The case of Christine O’Donnell, former Delaware candidate for U.S. senator, highlights the continuing abuses by the sprawling agency charged with collecting our taxes.
Before running, O’Donnell had heard that if she chose to run in 2010 for the U.S. Senate against former Delaware governor Mike Castle, the IRS and others would “F— with her head,” in the words of a top Delaware political insider.
In short order, someone accessed O’Donnell’s tax return information containing private financial details. A U.S. Treasury agent informed O’Donnell that a Delaware state employee may have accessed her tax information and improperly used it.
After an inquiry by Senator Chuck Grassley, the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration confirmed that unidentified persons, presumably IRS employees, had gained improper access to multiple individuals’ tax information. This indicates more than what President Obama would call a “smidgen of corruption.”
The IRS then wrongly attached an $11,744 tax lien to a property O’Donnell no longer owned, and political opponents speciously used the after-the-fact lien to damage O’Donnell’s standing and manufacture a tax scandal just as she launched her Senate campaign.
On top of the improper lien and the illegal access of her personal tax records, the IRS relentlessly audited and nit-picked O’Donnell’s personal finances. Three years later, the targeted fly-specking yielded … a whopping $1,100 for the federal treasury. That’s a return of $1 per audit-day. At that rate, the IRS would do far better to have its staffers panhandle in the street. Alternatively, the IRS could pursue bigger fish: The former Treasury Secretary, Tim Geithner, was off by approximately $48,000.
It was bad enough that the IRS would target O’Donnell with a politically motivated audit, an illegitimate lien and the public release of her private financial information. Worse than that, the misconduct in this matter inappropriately affected the outcome of a U.S. Senate election. Now, worst of all, the IRS is successfully thwarting efforts to find and prosecute illegal conduct within the agency.
All this is far afield of IRS’s stated mission to “provide America’s taxpayers top quality service by helping them understand and meet their tax responsibilities and enforce the law with integrity and fairness to all.”
The IRS is supposed to be an apolitical, nonpartisan agency tasked with collecting revenue to fund government obligations and relies primarily on voluntary compliance by taxpayers. To succeed, the IRS must treat all taxpayers even-handedly.
Moreover, wrongdoing within the institution threatens the agency’s mission and could very well decrease the voluntary compliance so critical to the IRS’s primary task. At the time of the IRS’s audit of O’Donnell, individuals filed 140,837,499 federal income tax returns, and the IRS conducted 1,564,690 audits, or 1 percent of total returns.
The two congressional committees that oversee the IRS are now probing into the circumstances leading to the abuses that O’Donnell and others experienced.
However, even if these committees uncover outright wrongdoing, the committees will not share the information with voters or even O’Donnell herself. Under current law, the IRS need not disclose the source of the personal data breaches or improper targeting.
President Obama called it “outrageous” for the IRS to be “operating in anything less than a neutral and nonpartisan way” after revelations that the IRS targeted Tea Party groups based on their political viewpoints. Mr. Obama called the prior IRS targeting “contrary to our traditions.”
In the 65 minutes Mr. Obama devoted to his State of the Union address, he should have included as a leading priority the need to rein in an out-of-control IRS and to adopt a detailed and robust program of taxpayer rights.
In the upcoming flurry of the executive orders he has promised, Mr. Obama should take swift, effective steps to protect taxpayers from further IRS abuses. But Congress shouldn’t hold its breath.
If two congressional committees are going to invest the time and energy to probe these abuses, the least Congress could do is change the law so the victims have some assurance the perpetrators are held accountable and brought to justice. That is the only way to protect American citizens and ensure the IRS never does this to anyone again.
Gayle Trotter is an attorney in Washington, D.C. and a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum, her views are her own.