The ‘Very Serious’ Tradition of the Internal Revenue Service
Our tax-collecting agency has been called “an invitation to corruption” for decades.


Jim Geraghty

In light of its recent admission that conservative groups were improperly targeted for special scrutiny in applications for tax-exempt status, and the release of a conservative group’s private tax information to liberal organizations, the Internal Revenue Service wants you to know it takes all allegations of wrongdoing by its workers very seriously.

“Very seriously.”

Back in 2012, when the National Organization for Marriage’s (NOM) tax files were published by the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), and the NOM accused the Internal Revenue Service of leaking the information, the agency’s written statement laid down the law:

“IRS takes this confidentiality of return information very seriously. Any allegations of improper disclosures of taxpayer information are investigated by the Treasury Inspector General,” IRS spokesman Dean Patterson said in a statement.

That’s not the only thing the IRS takes “very seriously.” In 2011, after the treasury inspector general for tax administration, J. Russell George, concluded that 2,200 databases used by the IRS to manage and process taxpayer information were not secure, the IRS management issued a statement in response that they “take the security of our databases very seriously.”


“Very seriously.” 

They took it just as seriously as they had in 2008, when an IRS employee was caught snooping in the tax records of more than 200 friends and celebrities.

“TIGTA and the IRS take the security of taxpayer data very seriously. TIGTA uses a computer-based detection program that analyzes access to tax accounts, and identifies those with potential unauthorized access (UNAX) issues,” said George.

“Very seriously.”

The IRS took that 2008 case just as seriously as they had in 1997, when hundreds of employees were caught doing the same thing:

The Internal Revenue Service fired 23 employees, disciplined 349 and counseled 472 after agency audits found that government computers were still being used to browse tax records of friends, relatives and celebrities.

A document, released yesterday and covering fiscal 1994 and 1995, listed 1,515 cases where employees were accused of misusing computers. After accounting for the employees who were fired, disciplined or counseled, 33 percent of the cases were closed without any action, and the remaining 12 percent of accused employees took retirement or were cleared.

Still, some might have wondered about the effectiveness of the earlier very serious declaration of a very serious “zero tolerance policy,” instituted after “a probe in 1993 and 1994 turned up more than 1,300 employees suspected of using government computers to browse tax files.”

Certainly, the IRS took the 1997 case at least as seriously as the mid-1990s revelation that “a snooper in the IRS’s Boston office turned out to have been a member of white supremacist groups, and a witness testified that the worker said he planned to use the tax data to build dossiers on people.”

The more you look at past wrongdoing and criminal activity at the IRS, the more you see those words “very seriously.” In fact, a cynical mind might conclude it was a meaningless phrase that was automatically rolled out to create the impression of severe consequences and an atmosphere of responsibility and accountability.

For example, back in 2011:

More than 100 employees of the Internal Revenue Service cheated the government by fraudulently claiming a first-time homebuyer tax credit included in the 2008 and 2009 economic stimulus packages, according to federal investigators.

The Treasury Department’s inspector general for tax administration, in several reports over the past few years, has identified a total of 128 IRS employees who claimed the credit but who also made other claims that showed they either weren’t first-time buyers or bought their homes outside the eligibility period for the credit, which was worth up to $8,000. . . . 

Instead of answering the questions, spokesman Grant William issued a general statement saying the agency takes compliance with tax laws “very seriously” and promised “strong action, including dismissal” when it finds that an erroneous claim has been made.

“Very seriously.”

In the aftermath of that very serious response to the inspector general’s report, a New Hampshire IRS agent was indicted for tax fraud for improperly claiming the tax credit. And while there’s no press release to go with it, we can safely assume the IRS took equally seriously the 2010 case in St. Paul, Minn., when an agent pleaded guilty to soliciting and receiving a $9,700 bribe; and the 2010 case of the former supervisory special agent in the Orlando office of the IRS criminal-investigation division,  who pleaded guilty to failing to report income from a tattoo parlor he co-owned.

With all of this very serious focus on wrongdoing among current employees, the IRS hasn’t been able to be quite as serious about the trend of former employees helping people commit tax fraud.