Judge orders IRS to comply with FOIA request filed 30 years ago

Stacey Laskin | Freedom of Information | Feature | June 17, 2008

Even the taxman is subject to sunshine.

A federal judge ruled Friday that the Internal Revenue Service has flouted three court orders dating back to 1976, requiring it to regularly provide requested information to a Syracuse University professor. Judge Marsha Pechman, of the Western District of Washington in Seattle, ordered the IRS to produce unredacted copies of the requested audit reports within 30 days.

In addition, the IRS must comply with future requests and send the documents electronically to Syracuse School of Management Professor Susan B. Long within 30 days of her inquiries.

Long co-directs Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), a data-research organization through the school that compiles government statistics for the public. She filed a motion in February for compliance with the three previous orders.

The FOIA saga that spanned four decades began in 1974 when Long, then a graduate student at The University of Washington, filed her original request for statistics from the IRS. She received a court order to enforce the request two years later.

For years, the IRS complied, providing her with the information about its audit policies and practices. Starting in mid-2004, however, the IRS stopped sending Long data.

A 2006 motion resulted in two more court orders against the IRS, but they were unenforceable: On paper, Long had a right to all the documents she wanted to compile the TRAC database. But in practice, she described the IRS’ stance as “open defiance” of the orders.

“We’d go in say, ‘Hey we’ve got a consent order,’ and the IRS would do nothing,” Long said. “This was really not a question of law.”

Still, the IRS claimed it was exempt from Long’s requests under one of FOIA’s exemptions, which allows agencies to withhold documents regarding the “deliberative process.”

Pechman found the IRS had waived this legal argument 30 years ago by failing to raise it at the time and ordered the audit reports be released within 30 days.