Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Federal Judge Slaps IRS With Its Own Deadline

An earlier post told how the IRS was being taken to court to get it to comply with a 30 year old order to provide data to a tax researcher. On Monday, the judge in the case ruled that the IRS must provide all the data requested.
SEATTLE, WA - A federal court has ruled in favor of a widely recognized researcher seeking detailed statistics from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) about how the agency enforces the nation's tax laws. Judge Marsha Pechman of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington ordered the IRS to turn over statistical data to Susan B. Long, a professor at Syracuse University and co-director of the non-profit research organization Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC).

This is clearly good news for anyone who wants more (any) transparency in government. But if you read on, it gets even better...
Pechman ordered production of the requested reports within 14 days, placing the IRS under the same compliance deadline (April 17) that the rest of the nation faces for tax returns. The court also ruled that Long is entitled to an award of attorneys' fees for enforcing the order.

In what seems like a punitive move, it has to turn over the data under the very same deadline the rest of us face each year. Not only that, but the IRS must also pay the legal fees in the case. This is far from automatic in a FOIA case; the court considers 4 criteria when asked to award legal fees:
(1) the public benefit from disclosure, (2) any commercial benefit to the plaintiff resulting from the disclosure, (3) the nature of the plaintiff's interest in the disclosed records, and (4) whether the government?s withholding of the records had a reasonable basis in law.

The court found in favor of Ms. Long in all four criteria.

This small case is should be a very big deal across the political spectrum. One of the lawyers in the case, Scott Nelson of Public Citizen, put it well when he said:
"The court's decision not only vindicates the public's right to information, but also serves as a powerful reminder to agencies that the courts can hold them accountable and that they act at their peril if they disregard court orders."

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