IRS Bungles FOIA Requests

Tristyn Bloom Contributor
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A recent government audit has uncovered that the Internal Revenue Service has been mishandling Freedom of Information Act requests, withholding information from nearly 600 requests in fiscal year 2012 alone.

The audit reviewed “a statistically valid sample” of FOIA and Privacy Act requests and found that 16.4 percent “may have” violated taxpayer rights because “the IRS improperly withheld or failed to adequately search for and provide information to requestors.”

Of the 12,198 FOIA and Privacy Act requests processed in Fiscal Year 2012, 24 percent were denied outright–a 20 percent increase from the previous fiscal year. 118 requests were still backlogged at the end of FY 2012, despite the IRS having hired 21 new “disclosure specialists” to combat the backlog that year. As of June 2013, the backlog had increased to 122.

The report, conducted by the Treasury Inspector General, estimates that “approximately 559 FOIA/Privacy Act requests may have had information erroneously withheld,” based on the sample they reviewed. “We expect the number of requests that had information erroneously withheld to range from 265 to 984 requests.” This is a dramatic increase from previous years–in 2012, the IG found that information was improperly withheld from just 3.3 percent of requests.

The report speculates that the “influx of new employees” may be the root of the problem–since 2011, the IRS has hired 45 new disclosure specialists to deal with such requests. The report notes that during FY 2012, all 45 of these employees were still either in formal or on-the-job training, and that they constituted nearly 50 percent of the entire disclosure specialist team.

On a more positive note, the report found that all requests were responded to in a timely manner, presumably because incomplete, inaccurate reports are less time-consuming to compile.

The report also found that “disclosure specialists may be inadvertently disclosing taxpayer information,” which is bureaucratese for “16 percent of requests improperly disclosed sensitive taxpayer information.” These violations included releasing information to people unauthorized to receive it; failing to redact sensitive information consistently throughout documents, meaning that the same information would be both blacked out and visible at different points in the release; and releasing IRS transcripts for an incorrect Social Security Number.

The IG recommended that the IRS “should emphasize the importance of the disclosure laws and regulations with all disclosure specialists and their managers, and ensure that the procedures for reporting inadvertent disclosures are periodically reviewed.”

The IRS agreed, promising to develop a new mandatory training session.

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