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GOP lawmakers still awaiting IRS answers on last summer's taxpayer data breach

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Taxpayer privacy and our records' security apparently are top of mind on Capitol Hill.

A couple of Democratic House oversight committee leaders are demanding operation details from a firm the Internal Revenue Service uses, for now, to authenticate taxpayers' identities. You can read more on that inquiry in yesterday's post on the investigation (and continuing tax pro ID.me requirements).

Meanwhile, ranking Republicans on the House and Senate tax-writing committees also want answers, this time on how taxpayer records were stolen from the IRS last summer. That information ended up in ProPublica exposé on taxes paid (or not) by some the United States' wealthiest individuals.

Hot seat day leak revealed: IRS officials, including Commissioner Charles Rettig, just happened to be testifying before a previously scheduled Senate Finance Committee hearing on June 8, 2021, when the ProPublica story was published.

"I share the concerns of every American for the sensitive and private nature and confidential nature of the information the IRS receives," Commissioner Charles Rettig told the Senators. "Trust and confidence in the Internal Revenue Service is sort of the bedrock of asking people and requiring people to provide financial information."

Following that testimony, Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), the Finance Committee's ranking GOP member, and Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas), ranking member on House Ways and Means, wrote Rettig seeking specifics on the security breach.

Still questioning, 10 months later: On April 18, Crapo and Brady followed up with Rettig's boss, sending a letter to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen.

The lawmakers want to know why, 10 months after the taxpayer privacy violation, Treasury, IRS, and White House officials still do not know how it happened, and are seeking an update on the investigation's status.

They're particularly concerned as to why investigators have not sought a copy of the stolen information.

"Anyone accessing or releasing confidential personal tax information from the IRS without necessary approvals faces severe penalties and must be prosecuted," wrote Crapo and Brady, reiterating Rettig's committee pledge to "to 'absolutely' ensure that anyone found to have revealed such information would face prosecution, 'absolutely.'"

To that end, say the GOP tax committee members, "It is unclear why the Department of Treasury, the IRS, and the Department of Justice do not ask ProPublica for a copy of whatever data ProPublica is using to produce political articles in order to determine whether ProPublica's claim of possessing legally protected data is true."

Other investigative avenues: In addition to the Treasury and IRS letters, the tax-writing pair and some of their GOP colleagues also —

  • Wrote U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland and FBI Director Christopher Wray on June 14, 2021, demanding a prompt investigation and prosecution of the leak of confidential taxpayer information;
  • Requested on June 21, 2021, a Government Accountability Office (GAO) review of the IRS' data security practices, procedures and methods;
  • Asked on Oct. 5, 2021, that the Treasury’s Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) audit IRS research activities, and security protocols surrounding those activities.

Rettig also was sent follow-up letters about the ProPublica access to taxpayer records, one on Aug. 10, 2021, and another on Dec. 2, 2021.

While the IRS has been swamped during this breach, dealing with regular filing seasons and added COVID-19 pandemic tax responsibilities, the lawmakers have a point. When taxpayer data is taken from the government agency tasked with collecting and safeguarding it, Congress and we taxpayers deserve answers.

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