The Internal Revenue Service plans to ask Congress for permission to publicize the returns of some "tax protesters" who refuse to pay taxes for religious, political or constitutional grounds, according to an IRS memo.
The proposal to breach the traditional secrecy of tax returns is part of an IRS strategy for dealing with growing defiance of the income tax law by groups ranging from mail-order ministers, who claim their "church" is exempt from taxation, to ideological objectors, who argue that the income tax violates their constitutional rights.
The IRS plans to ask the Joint Committee on Taxation for authority to implement a never-before-used exception to the strict federal law guaranteeing privacy of tax returns.
The exception permits the IRS, with the committee's consent, to disclose taxpayer information "to correct misstatements of fact."
The extraordinary exposure of tax returns is necessary, the agency contends, because some tax protesters are falsely accusing the IRS of harassing them.
The disclosure proposal is part of a new strategy for dealing with tax protesters outlined by IRS Commissioner Roscoe Egger in a memo responding to a General Accounting Office report criticizing IRS' handling of tax protesters
The number of tax protesters has tripled the past three years and now "poses a threat to our country's voluntary compliance tax system," GAO warned in a report in July. The report recommended that IRS begin to use its authority to make public protesters' tax returns.
The IRS is writing new rules for auditing tax protesters, programming its computers to single out their returns and planning to freeze tax refunds claimed on the basis of questionable deductions, Egger said in the memo to Rep. Jack Brooks (D-Tex.), chairman of the House Committee on Government Operations.
Targets of IRS include outfits selling supposedly tax-exempt "churches" for $45, promoters of "family trusts" that are allegedly untaxable, pacifists who refuse to pay taxes to support military spending, constitutional conservatives who argue that filing an income tax return violates the Fifth Amendment's protection against self-incrimination, hard money fanatics who claim the dollar is not real money because it is not backed by gold and a plethora of other anti-tax types.
"Arguments about unconstitutionality and the dollar not being legal tender are nothing but unadulterated snake oil," a federal judge in Detroit noted recently when he sentenced leaders of a Flint, Mich., tax revolt.
The IRS defines illegal tax protesters as anyone "who advocates and/or participates in a scheme with a broad exposure that results in the illegal underpayment of taxes." The number of taxpayers identified as protesters by the IRS jumped from 7,700 in 1978 to 20,800 last year.
Though that is less than 1/20th of 1 percent of the 55.3 million Form 1040s filed last year, IRS district offices will have to spend 2 percent of their compliance budget tracking down protesters this year, GAO estimates.
Protesters create a disproportionate problem for the IRS because many are skilled in resisting, delaying and diverting government efforts to collect their taxes.
One of the protesters' favorite tactics is to attack IRS publicly and portray IRS auditors as bureaucrats-run-amok, viciously persecuting innocent taxpayers caught in the web of the tax code. "In many cases, protest leaders make false claims about their personal tax situations and the IRS dealings with them," the GAO reported.
Until now, the IRS has refused to comment on the protesters' charges.
But the revenue service, pressed by GAO and a Government Operations subcommittee chaired by Rep. Benjamin S. Rosenthal (D-N.Y.), who asked GAO to look into tax protesters, is overcoming its reticence.
When some 3,500 workers at General Motors plants in Flint, Mich., filed W4 withholding forms claiming they had so many dependents that no taxes should be taken out of their checks, the IRS moved quickly to squelch the drive.
Thursday two leaders of the protest, Dean S. Hazel, a GM truck plant worker, and James S. Lott, a tool and die maker, were given jail terms for their part in the protest. Hazel drew a two-year term for filing false W4 forms and Lott got 2 1/2 years for filing false tax returns and false withholding forms.
Two other Michigan tax protesters last summer drew three-year sentences and stinging rebukes from federal judges in Detroit.
Some judges have begun to throw out tax protest cases and threaten protesters with contempt of court or other punishment for claiming legal defenses that were long ago rejected by the Supreme Court.
In a District of Columbia ruling, Tax Court Judge Arnold Raum recently complained that the courts are being flooded with "thoroughly meritless issues" and "wildly espoused positions." Raum made the comment in dismissing a lawsuit against the IRS brought by protesters who claimed the Bible, the Magna Carta and the Northwest Ordinance guaranteed freedom from the income tax.