October 10 2013

Trading Secrets

Patrice J. Lee

It’s been a while since we’ve reported on misbehavior at the Internal Revenue Service. How wonderful it would be if it was because everyone at the IRS was on their best behavior. Unfortunately, we can’t substantiate that.

What we can reveal is that IRS officials appear to have once again been caught engaged in misbehavior and this time it appears that wrong doing –which could, in fact, turn out to be illegal activity - deals with the private information of a taxpaying entity.

Remember this summer’s revelation that the IRS targeted conservative and Tea Party organizations which sought tax exempt status with extra scrutiny and played games with their applications? We are now learning that the head of the IRS’s nonprofit division and her right hand woman reportedly discussed confidential taxpayer information with senior White House officials back in 2012. Based on the content of emails secured by the Daily Caller, this was a religious organization which launched a lawsuit opposing the ObamaCare contraception mandate

It’s not much ado about nothing. Apparently the IRS code forbids a federal employee from divulging the information she comes across while working. Doing so is a felony that carries a penalty of jail time.

Here’s what we know:

[IRS official Sarah Hall] Ingram attempted to counsel the White House on a lawsuit from religious organizations opposing Obamacare's contraception mandate. Email exchanges involving Ingram and White House officials - including White House health policy advisor Ellen Montz and deputy assistant to the president for health policy Jeanne Lambrew - contained confidential taxpayer information, according to Oversight.

The emails provided to Oversight investigators by the IRS had numerous redactions with the signifier “6103.”

...

“Thanks, David. Thanks for the information on [6103],” White House official Lambrew wrote to IRS official David Fish in a July 20, 2012 exchange. “I am still hoping to understand whether the 50 percent rule is moot if the organization does not offer goods and services for sale to the general public. Do we assume that organizations like [6103] do offer goods and services for sale?”


Another email from Montz to Ingram and others refers to the “[6103] memo” and the “[6103] letter” while discussing organizations that are not required to file 990′s.

Representative Darrell Issa called Ingram to the Hill to answer some questions. Not surprisingly, she had amnesia about the document in question. Issa hopes to get unredacted copies of the emails, but good luck to him with that.

I find this disconcerting because it could mean that IRS officials have traded confidential information of private Americans with the White House in instances we have yet to discover. This time it seems to have been caught but what about the other possible incidences where (senior) IRS officials misused their authority and access? When someone gets caught in misbehavior it’s usually not their first time doing it but after they have begun to take such behavior for granted or slip up and make a mistake.

Our civil servants are in the unique position of being granted access to the kind of information we hide from our mothers. We won’t reveal our tax information and social security number to the person we’re dating until we’re absolutely sure he can be trusted or he has put a ring on it – whichever comes first. And there are good reasons for that.

Our government recognizes those reasons and built legal protections for private individuals. So it’s troubling when a public servant takes for granted that public trust to advance her own interests and the White House’s agenda.

We’ll see if Issa can successfully hold Ingram accountable and perhaps send a message to other government officials: “Don’t abuse our privacy.”

And by the way, Ingram is no longer at the IRS. Don’t breathe a sigh of relief just yet though. She now heads up the ObamaCare implementation.

 

 

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