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Newspaper loses bid for delinquent business tax list

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  1. Freedom of Information
PENNSYLVANIA--A newspaper has no right to examine taxpayer files to determine which business entities are delinquent, Pennsylvania's Commonwealth Court in…

PENNSYLVANIA–A newspaper has no right to examine taxpayer files to determine which business entities are delinquent, Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court in Harrisburg held in mid-July.

In a terse opinion, the administrative appellate court overturned the trial court.

In late January 1998, The Scranton Times requested that the Scranton Single Tax Office make available copies of delinquent tax lists for businesses that had not paid wage, business privilege, or mercantile taxes. The tax office denied the request, asserting that no such lists existed.

Following the denial, the newspaper brought a complaint under the state’s Right-to-Know Act. The trial court found that although no lists existed, the newspaper had the right to examine taxpayer files and compile its own lists of delinquent taxpayers.

On appeal, the tax office argued that it did not maintain lists of delinquent taxpayers and was not required to create such lists. Further, the tax office argued that state tax law barred it from providing taxpayer information.

The appellate panel agreed. It said that when the trial court ordered the tax office to provide taxpayer information to the newspaper, it required the tax officer to perform a criminal act. Lists of delinquent taxpayers are statutorily exempt from disclosure, it noted, adding that release of taxpayer information is punishable by fines and imprisonment.

Further, the appellate panel noted that a government agency is not required to create documents that do not exist in order to satisfy a records request. “If the records are, indeed, public, then it is up to those seeking to examine them to go through each record and gather the information,” the panel wrote.

Dissenting Judge James Gardner Collins said that he believed state law allowed for the release of such information and that no criminal sanctions should apply to its release. (The Scranton Times v. Scranton Single Tax Office)