"Something odd I saw recently" was how the email from a Bankrate reader began. I cover taxes, so I'm accustomed to someone citing a tax-related peculiarity.
But what caught Michael's attention was a segment of the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, or TIGTA, report on the way the Internal Revenue Service dealt with applications for 501(c)(4) tax-exempt status.
As everyone knows by now, that was the report issued in May that exposed the IRS' use of, as TIGTA characterized it, inappropriate criteria in deciding whether conservative groups' applications should get extra attention. Some progressive groups, it was later revealed, also were targeted using "be on the lookout," or BOLO, lists.
In detailing the evidence it found of such targeting, TIGTA's report contained pages of sources, including IRS email exchanges. However, in most cases, few or no details of the messages were provided.
"This seems very odd, given the extraordinary public interest in this topic," Michael wrote.
He's not the only one with an interest in IRS emails.
5,500-plus emails reviewed
J. Russell George, the inspector general in charge of keeping tabs on the IRS, testified before the House Oversight Committee July 18. Among George's revelations was that he instructed his staff to review more than 5,500 electronic communications related to the tax-exempt applications.
TIGTA was looking for "a smoking gun email," George told the committee, that the IRS had said would show who had instructed IRS employees in the Cincinnati office to target conservative groups, specifically those with the terms "Tea Party," "patriot" and "9/12" in their names.
The extensive search, however, was for naught. No such specific email was found.
"I don't know whether there was an email that was destroyed," George said.
Taxpayer privacy limits
So will folks like Michael who are interested in exactly what was in those emails noted in the TIGTA report ever get details? No, because of privacy concerns.
The major privacy hurdle comes from Section 6103 of the Internal Revenue Manual, the agency's operational guidebook.
Section 6103 provides that returns and return information shall be confidential and may not be disclosed except as authorized by the Internal Revenue Code. The term "return information" includes any information received or prepared by IRS employees with respect to a tax return.
The bottom line is that any communication, written or electronic, that includes a mention of a taxpayer, individual or group, is not going to be public knowledge. In fact, much of the data that is shared with Congress is redacted to remove references to specific taxpayers.
So Michael and I and all the other folks hoping for more precise details about exactly what was going on in this part of the tax-exempt review process will just have to keep wondering.
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Veteran contributing editor Kay Bell is the author of the book "The Truth About Paying Fewer Taxes" and a co-author of the e-book "Future Millionaires' Guidebook."