Politics & Policy

The IRS vs. Privacy

Representative Darrell Issa (R., Calif.), as usual doing the unpleasant work of trying to figure out what exactly it is our so-called public servants are up to all day, requested a series of e-mail exchanges between IRS staffers and White House political personnel regarding provisions of the new health-care law requiring religious organizations to violate their consciences and pay for contraceptives and abortifacients. The e-mail transcripts came back partly redacted, and the IRS labeled those redactions “6103.” And those four digits are a serious problem for the IRS and the Obama administration.

The number 6103 is the IRS’s notation for information that is being redacted because it contains confidential taxpayer information. There are relatively few people authorized to view 6103 information, mostly nonpolitical staff at the IRS (i.e., the guy performing your audit) and, in a few narrow circumstances, particular members of Congress — not including Darrell Issa, apparently. But the content of those 6103 redactions is in e-mails sent by IRS professional staff, who have access to all manner of private taxpayer information, to White House political staff, who are barred by law from receiving 6103 information. There are two possibilities here: Either the IRS is attempting to stonewall Issa’s investigation by improperly and illegally redacting documents he has requested, or the IRS improperly and illegally shared confidential taxpayer information with White House political staff. The latter is the more likely outcome.

#ad#The e-mail transcripts are of some interest. The White House staffers plainly are attempting to figure out how to construe the rules so as to provide as few exemptions as possible, thereby maximizing the number of religious institutions roped into the contraception and abortion businesses. The White House staffers go so far as to ask questions about specific organizations — asking those questions of IRS professional staffers not authorized to disclose private taxpayer information. The answers and the redaction can be a bit amusing; one reads, “The large, well known ‘[redacted] universities — e.g. [redacted] — do not appear to be part of the [redacted] group ruling.” We think that chances are excellent that first redacted word is “Catholic,” given that later inquiries touch on the role of religious orders and the like.

The IRS employee here is Sarah H. Ingram, the former commissioner for tax-exempt and government entities — i.e., the superior of the suddenly retired Lois Lerner, the one-woman lie factory who got the IRS scandal rolling with her dishonesty and ineptitude. Ms. Ingram has been with the IRS for three decades; she knows the rules. Challenged by Representative Issa during his hearings, she claimed not to recall what exactly was underneath all those 6103 redactions. It does not really matter. Either she illegally shared confidential taxpayer information or the IRS is illegally interfering with a congressional investigation. The task now is to determine which of those is the case and to prosecute the guilty party or parties.

There is supposed to be a church-and-state separation between political and nonpolitical work in government, but that is more aspiration than fact. Here we have a longtime IRS employee collaborating with political staffers in order to maximize the reach of a controversial and contested policy. The policy itself may be unconstitutional, and the communications about it from Ms. Ingram, who is now in charge of enforcement of the Affordable Care Act, may have been illegal. Employees at the IRS who reported to her are in possession of sensitive financial information and have leaked it to damage their political enemies; others will soon be in possession of sensitive health-care information, too, in their role as Obamacare enforcers. If conservatives dislike having their tax returns leaked, they’re going to like it even less when it’s documents from the urologist or gynecologist.

This is a situation that is simply intolerable. The House is doing what it can, but this is a matter for a serious criminal investigation. We are not going to hold our breath waiting for Eric Holder to get serious about this, which means it is up to Representative Issa and, more important, to the American public to see to it that this abuse is not allowed to stand.

The Editors — The Editors comprise the senior editorial staff of the National Review magazine and website.

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