Soon after the Internal Revenue Service closed the books on the audit of the Western Journalism Center in May of this year, I filed a Freedom of Information Act request for our case file.
Now, my lawyer, William Lehrfeld — an expert in such matters and a former IRS agent himself — says getting your own case file is a slam dunk. The agency has no reason to deny it. There are no exemptions for privacy because the taxpayer is seeking only information collected about himself, or, in this case, his organization.
I was hopeful that the paper trail of memos and documents we would receive from the IRS would prove my theory that the audit was initiated at the White House for political reasons.
Well, lo and behold, the IRS has responded. We received a package of 114 pages of material. When I eagerly opened it, though, I was disappointed to find out that most of that material was simply the tax returns and accompanying support material that we had filed with the IRS. The response had been completely sanitized.
A cover letter explained why material had been withheld and why even the innocuous documents provided had been redacted in some cases. The exemption under the FOIA cited was for “inter-agency or intra-agency memorandums (sic) or letters which would not be available by law to a party other than an agency in litigation with the agency.” Clear enough for you?
To my mind, it sounds like the IRS is admitting that paperwork has been flying around between agencies regarding our case. That’s curious. Why should any other federal agency or office be involved in an IRS audit? Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?
“It sounds very suspicious,” said Lehrfeld, who disagrees that the exemption from FOIA is a legitimate one. On Monday, he will be meeting with the Joint Committee on Taxation, which is investigating political abuse by the IRS, and sharing the latest in this saga with the representatives and senators.
I hope the stonewalling by the IRS wakes up some of those guys. They appear to be falling for the IRS propaganda about how the agency is becoming “customer-friendly” and responsive to the needs of taxpayers. Rubbish. This is the same old bureaucracy that believes in one thing — consolidating power and covering its derriere.
We keep hearing about openness in government, but as a news professional, I’m not seeing it. In fact, I’m seeing more obfuscation and secrecy than I’ve seen since the Watergate era.
I believe this audit was initiated at the White House principally because of the memos that have been unearthed that show my organization was targeted as far back as 1994. When I found out about that memo, I filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the White House counsel’s office asking for any and all files in which my organization was named. The White House claimed a privilege exemption for that request, too, but also said there were no such files.
Only a few months later we found out that the White House had been researching, publishing and distributing a 331-page report principally about us to select members of the news media. The White House not only refused to comment on the discrepancy, it even refused — to this day — to provide us with a copy of that report, which it had clearly used as a taxpayer-supported piece of propaganda against us.
Fortunately, we were able to obtain it through other sources. But, it makes you wonder, what else is hidden away in government files? Who else is keeping tabs on us? What country are we living in?
To top it off, I noticed that the IRS had not sent my lawyer a copy of their response. Assuming it was just an oversight, I called the IRS contact — a Ms. Marian O. Hale in Los Angeles — to arrange for him to get one.
“Oh, I couldn’t do that,” she said.
“Why not?” I asked. “He has our power of attorney and is supposed to receive a copy of all correspondence between us.”
“Well, the file has been put away,” she said. “I would have to retrieve the file again.”
“And, is that a problem?” I asked.
“Yes, I couldn’t do that,” she said.
“So, let me get this straight,” I said. “You’re not going to do this for us, are you?”
“No,” she said.
“Let me ask you,” I said, “is this the new customer-friendly face of the IRS I keep hearing about?” She never responded. End of conversation.