(CNSNews.com) - A non-partisan 501(c)3 organization whose mission is to educate the public on the issue of taxation has filed a federal lawsuit against the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) seeking “training materials used for staff in the IRS’ exempt organizations office in Cincinnati.” (See Tax Analysts v. IRS.pdf)
The lawsuit was filed August 13 by Tax Analysts in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia after the IRS missed several deadlines to comply with the group’s May 21 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.
The FOIA request asked for expedited access to “all training materials, including but not limited to, memoranda, staff manuals, Powerpoint presentations, videos and other materials that have been used since 1 January 2009 for the purpose of training personnel in the IRS exempt organizations determinations office in Cincinnati.”
However, two months after the initial FOIA request was filed, “no records have been produced,” even though “Tax Analysts has a statutory right of access to the records it seeks, and there is no legal basis for IRS to withhold those documents,” the lawsuit said.
Earlier this month, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee subpoenaed Treasury Secretary Jack Lew to turn over any communications between the IRS and the White House “referring or relating to tax-exempt organizations or tax-exempt status.”
“This is not the first time at this rodeo for us," Tax Analysts president and publisher Christopher Bergin told CNSNews.com, noting that the group has successfully sued the tax collection agency many times over the last four decades.
The issue addressed by the current lawsuit is pretty simple, he added. “Similarly situated taxpayers need to be treated the same way. If the IRS is telling you one thing and me another, that’s basically unfair.”
Bergin cautioned that “we are not calling it a scandal yet,” adding that “the training manuals may actually show they didn’t do anything wrong.” Whether the IRS was deliberately targeting political groups or “just made a dumb mistake” has yet to be determined, he warned.
“We’re not a political organization. We believe in debate. Once we get the information, then MSNBC and FOX News, or [Rep. Darrel] Issa and [Rep. Elijah] Cummings can decide what it means. We don’t care. We just want the truth.”
“We’re not piling on,” he added. “The IRS is full of good, professional people who have a very hard job.” But he also criticized what he called the agency’s entrenched “culture of secrecy.”
In 1972, Tax Analysts successfully sued the IRS over “private letters” interpreting tax laws that agency employees were secretly sending to large corporations and their high-priced law firms, but refused to make public.
“The IRS would keep a copy of the letter to the law firm and refer back to it in its rulings,” Bergin explained. “They were making internal law and not letting the rest of the world see it. What really annoyed our founder [former IRS lawyer Tom Field] was that this gave an incredible advantage to people who could afford fancy law firms over the rest of us.”
“We filed the [current] lawsuit quite reluctantly,” he said, referring to a 2004 case in which the tax collection agency “refused to hand over emails similar to the private letter ruling. “
“I cannot believe this ended up in court,” Bergin said, noting that his group won a unanimous verdict from the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia after four years of litigation. “Four federal judges agreed with us. I cannot tell you to this day why [the IRS] did it. They wasted [six figures] of tax money when they had no chance [in court] from the beginning.”
“We have had tons of litigation with the IRS, not because we like to do it,” Bergin added, noting that the agency has a long track record of not responding to public requests for information. “To a certain extent, unfortunately, this is normal behavior.”
“I can’t give a rational explanation for what I consider irrational behavior, but this is a bad way to run a tax system. They won’t even give Congress this material," Bergin told CNSNews.com. "So the way this works is, we go to court and we beat them.”