DC Circuit Blesses IRS’ Glomar Defense In Long Running FOIA Dispute

Back in 2018, in District Court Allows IRS to Use Glomar Defense In FOIA Suit Seeking Whistleblower Info I discussed one of the many installments of the litigation between Thomas and Beth Montgomery and the IRS.  The case involved the Mr and Mrs Montgomery’s desire to see documents that shed light on how IRS had gotten wind of their partnerships that threw off mostly phony losses.

Late last month, the DC Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court.

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The Montgomery family’s partnership transactions attracted the attention of the IRS, leading to a Fifth Circuit opinion finding that most of the partnerships were shams but that one had a legitimate business purpose.  The finding that one partnership was legitimate led the Montgomerys to initiate separate refund suits that the IRS ultimately settled, leading to an almost $500,000 refund.  

The Montgomerys filed a FOIA claim because they wanted to unearth how the IRS came to scrutinize the transactions, with a particular interest in finding out if there was an informant.

In asserting a Glomar defense to the Montgomery request for documents pertaining to whistleblower forms, the IRS refused to either confirm or deny the existence of the records requested.

As I discussed in my original post, the Glomar defense originates from the Cold War and the CIA wanting to keep secret its efforts to uncover a sunken Soviet submarine:

In certain circumstances, […] an agency may refuse to confirm or deny that it has relevant records. This “Glomar response” derives from a ship, the Hughes Glomar Explorer, about which the CIA refused to confirm or deny the existence of records. See Phillippi v. CIA, 546 F.2d 1009, 1011 (D.C. Cir. 1976). Such responses are appropriate only when “`confirming or denying the existence of records would’ itself reveal protected information.” Bartko v. DOJ, 62 F. Supp. 3d 134, 141 (D.D.C. 2014) (quoting Nation Magazine v. U.S. Customs Serv., 71 F.3d 885, 893 (D.C. Cir. 1995)).

When the government raises a Glomar defense, it still needs to tether the defense to one of the nine statutory FOIA exemptions. In Montgomery, the IRS asserted Exemption 7(D).

Exemption 7(D) excludes from disclosure “records or information compiled for law enforcement purposes, but only to the extent that the production of such law enforcement records or information could reasonably be expected to disclose the identity of a confidential source … [who] furnished information on a confidential basis.” 5 U.S.C § 552(b)(7)(D).

As the DC Circuit described, the district court was “persuaded by the IRS’s explanation that it asserted a Glomar Response because a confirmation of the existence or absence of whistleblower documents in a particular case may lead a savvy requester to the very whistleblower himself. “

In sustaining the district court, it rejected a variety of estoppel type arguments that were premised on prior government admissions that no informant existed. That admission was not sufficient to estop the government from asserting a Glomar defense because it was not quite precisely what was at stake in the FOIA litigation:

The issue of the existence of a confidential informant…is not the same as the issue confronting us now; namely, whether the IRS possesses any documents pertaining to a confidential informant… Indeed, the documents requested by the Montgomerys…include such items as award applications and reportable transaction forms.. As the IRS and the district court correctly point out, the IRS does not pay awards for every form submitted to it.

The key point that the DC Circuit made was that “documents pertaining to a potential whistleblower can exist regardless of whether a whistleblower himself exists” any prior admission about the absence of an informant should not serve as a basis to assert collateral or judicial estoppel or otherwise serve to waive its right to assert a Glomar defense.

As to the merits of the underlying Glomar claim, the Montgomerys argued that the 7(D) exemption was not properly at play, claiming that the exemption only runs to the identity of the whistleblower and any information that the whistleblower provided, rather than their mere existence.

The DC Circuit squarely rejected that argument:

We disagree. Exemption 7(D) permits the IRS to withhold information that “could reasonably be expected to disclose the identity of a confidential source.”

Noting that the whistleblower regs require the IRS to use its best efforts to protect a whistleblower’s identity, the IRS’s policy to neither confirm nor deny the existence “makes sense”:

If the IRS only asserts Glomar when whistleblower records exist, and gives a negative answer when no records exist, savvy requesters would both (1) recognize that a Glomar Response indicates the positive existence of whistleblower documents; and (2) may well be able to deduce the identity of a potential whistleblower himself, the very information the IRS is required to protect. This is especially true when the pool of potential whistleblowers is very small, leading a revenge-seeking requester to narrow down the informant with relative ease. Far from violating FOIA’s statutory scheme, the IRS’s Glomar Response to FOIA requests for whistleblower documents aligns with the purpose of Exemption 7(D) and the duties of the IRS to protect whistleblower identities.

Conclusion

For those with a keen interest in FOIA , I recommend reading the opinion, which includes a discussion of when it is appropriate for the government to overcome the presumption of confidentiality for informants, the nature of district court in camera review, and the adequacy of the IRS’ search for other records that the Montgomerys wanted.  To that end and for an even deeper dive, in Saltzman and Book Chapter 2, Taxpayer Access to Information, we have an extensive FOIA discussion, covering materials that are not subject to IRS disclosure as well as myriad FOIA procedural issues.

As I discussed when blogging the 2018 opinion, this case is a significant victory for the IRS and paves the way for future Glomar responses in FOIA cases where someone is seeking information to determine if there was an informant that led to an IRS investigation.

March 2022 Digest

Spring has arrived and the Tax Court has resumed in-person sessions for many locations. In Denver, we have our first in-person calendar call on Monday. I’m looking forward to it, but also need figure out if any of my suits still fit. PT’s March posts focused on issues with examinations, IRS answers, and more.

A Time Sensitive Opportunity

Loretta Collins Argrett Fellowship: The Loretta Collins Argrett Fellowship seeks to support the inclusiveness of the tax profession by encouraging underrepresented individuals to join and actively participate in the ABA Tax Section and Tax Section leadership by providing fellowship opportunities. More information about the fellowships and how to apply are in the post. Applications are due April 3.

Taxpayer Rights

The 7th International Conference on Taxpayer Rights: Tax Collection & Taxpayer Rights in the Post-COVID World: The virtual online conference is from May 18 – 20 and focuses on the actual collection of tax. The agenda and the link to register are in the post. Additionally, the Center for Taxpayer Rights is hosting a free workshop called The Role of Tax Clinics and Taxpayer Ombuds/Advocates in Protecting Taxpayer Rights in Collection Matters on May 16 and a link to register is also in the post.

How Did We Get Here? Correspondence Exams and the Erosion of Fundamental Taxpayer Rights – Part 1: Correspondence exams now account for 85% of all audits, up from about 80% in the previous two years. This post looks at data on correspondence audits and identifies a disproportionate emphasis on EITC audits which burden and harm low income taxpayers. 

How Did We Get Here? Correspondence Exams and the Erosion of Fundamental Taxpayer Rights – Part 2: This post considers the long-term goal of audits, along with recommendations for how the IRS can improve correspondence exams. Such recommendations include utilizing virtual office audits; using plain language, tailored, and helpful audit notices; and assigning the audit to one specific person at the IRS. Making correspondence audits more customer friendly could fall under the purview of the newly created IRS Customer Experience Office.

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Opportunities for Improving Referrals by VITA Sites to LITCs: Taxpayer rights could be better protected if VITA sites better understood when a referral to an LITC may be necessary and how to make such a referral. This post explores opportunities to improve this process, including a training initiative begun by the Center for Taxpayer Rights.

Tax Court Updates and Information

Tax Court is on the Road Again: The Tax Court officially resumed in-person calendars on Monday, February 28, but select calendars are still being conducted remotely. Practitioners who have recently attended in-person calendars share more information about what it’s like to be back.

Ordering Documents from the Tax Court: A “how to” on ordering documents from the Court. Phone requests are currently the only way, but in-person requests may resume once the Court reopens to the public. Both options come with a per page or per document fee.

Tax Court Proposed Rule Changes: The Tax Court has proposed rule changes which are largely intended to clean up language or more closely conform the Tax Court rules to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. It invites public comments on the proposals by May 25, 2022.

Tax Court Decisions

Tax Court Takes Almost Five Years to Decide a Dependency Exemption Case: Hicks v. Commissioner highlights the procedures required to claim a qualified child as a dependent when the child does not reside with the taxpayer. The case is noteworthy for the length of time it took the Court to issue an opinion, especially because there were no continuances or other reasons for a delay.

Jeopardy Assessment Case Originating in the Tax Court: The opinion Yerushalmi v. Commissioner is rare because the Tax Court reviews whether jeopardy exists in the first instance, rather than following a district court decision. The post looks at the case, the standard of review, and the facts that can be relevant to the Tax Court when it must decide whether the IRS’s jeopardy assessment was reasonable.

Tax Court Answers

Tax Court Answers: There are issues caused by requiring the IRS to file answers in small tax cases. It delays a review of the case on its merits, the process is slow and impersonal, and there are risks that a taxpayer won’t understand what the answer says. The Court should consider conducting an empirical study, engaging with taxpayer representatives, or forming a judicial advisory committee to identify best practices.

Making the IRS Answer to Taxpayers…By Making the IRS Answer: In the first of a three-part series looking at issues with IRS Counsel answers, Caleb looks at the case of Vermouth v. Commissioner. The case emphasizes the importance of the administrative file during the pleading stages of litigation. Cases involving bad answers and their impact on the burden of proof and burden of production are also discussed.

Making the IRS Answer to Taxpayer Inquiries…By Making the IRS Reasonably Inquire: Tax Court Rule 33(b) requires a signer of a pleading to reasonably inquire into the truth of the facts stated therein. To what degree are IRS Counsel attorneys required to reasonably inquire when filing an answer? This post explores that question and sheds some light on the Court’s expectations.  

Making the IRS Answer to Taxpayer Inquiries…By Making the IRS Reasonably Inquire (Part Two): Continuing the discussion of the IRS’s responsibilities under Rule 33(b), this post looks closer at the consequences to the IRS when a bad answer is filed. Caleb examines the Court’s response in cases where an administrative file was excessively lengthy or not available quickly enough and shares the lessons to be learned.

Circuit Court Decisions

Naked Owners Lose Wrongful Levy Appeal: Goodrich et. al. v. United States demonstrates the interplay of state and federal law upon lien and levy law under the Internal Revenue Code. The 5th Circuit affirmed that a taxpayer’s children had a claim against their father’s property, but only as unsecured creditors according to state law. As a result, the children’s interests were not sufficient to sustain a wrongful levy claim.

Confusion Over Attorney’s Fees in Ninth Circuit Stems from Statute and Regulation…: In Dang v. Commissioner the parties debated the starting point in which reasonable administrative costs are incurred in the context of a CDP hearing. The IRS argued it’s after the notice of determination. Petitioners argued it’s after the 30-day notice which provides the right to request a CDP hearing. The Court decided no costs were incurred before the commencement date of the relevant proceeding without deciding when that date was. The case provides another reason why the statute and regulation involving the recovery of administrative costs from administrative proceedings should be changed.

Attorney’s Fees Cases in the Ninth Circuit and Requesting a Retirement Account Levy: The concurring judge in Dang demonstrates that he understands the entire argument and finds that the exclusion of collection action from the definition of administrative proceedings is contrary to the plain language of the statute. 

Oh Mann: The Sixth Circuit Holds IRS Notice Issued in Violation of the APA; District Court in CIC Services Finds Case is Binding Precedent: The decision Mann v. United States is binding on CIC Services and is examined more closely in this post. In Mann, the Sixth Circuit found that the IRS notice at issue was invalid because the public was not provided a notice and comment opportunity. The case is significant because it is another circuit court opinion that applies general administrative law principles to the IRS.

You Call That “Notice”? Seriously?:  General Mills, Inc. v. United States involves refund claims that were made within the two-year period under section 6511, but outside of the six-month period which starts when a notice of computational adjustment is issued to partners. The Court seemingly concluded that notices, unless misleading, need only to comport with statutory requirements regardless of due process considerations. The post also evaluates and discusses the adequacy of common notices in relation to the notice of computational adjustment.

No Rehearing En Banc for Goldring: Is Supreme Court Review Possible?: The issue in Goldring was how underpayment interest should be computed on a later assessed deficiency when a taxpayer elects to credit forward an overpayment from an earlier filed return. The government’s rehearing en banc petition was denied leaving in place the circuit split. IRS Counsel has advised that there are thousands of similar cases, which could result in refunds of multiple millions of dollars, so it is yet to been seen if the government will petition the Supreme Court.

Challenging Levy Compliance: In Nicholson v. Unify Financial Credit Union the Fourth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of a suit to stop a levy brought by a taxpayer against his credit union. The law requires a third party to turn over the property to the IRS and then allows the taxpayer whose property was wrongfully taken to seek the return of that property from the IRS, so suing the credit union is not an effective avenue.

Offers in Compromise

Suspension of Statute of Limitations Due to an Offer in Compromise: The statute of limitations on when the IRS can bring suit to reduce a liability to judgment is at issue in United States v. Park. An offer in compromise suspends the collection statute and can give the IRS more time than a taxpayer would expect. It’s good idea to consider the risks before submitting an offer.

Public Policy and Not in the Best Interest of the Government Offer in Compromise Rejections: Cases where the IRS rejects an offer in compromise based on public policy or for not being in the best interest of the government are reviewed to better understand the reasons for such rejections. The IRS may look at past and future voluntary compliance and criminal tax convictions. The IRS should make offer decisions easily reviewable to provide more transparency in this area.

Correction on Making Offers in Compromise Public: Keith has learned that the IRS has updated the way in which the public can inspect accepted offers. It is by requesting an Offer Acceptance Report by fax or mail. The report, however, only contains limited and targeted information, so FOIA is still the only way to receive broad and general information.

Bankruptcy and Taxes

General Discharge Denial in Chapter 7 Based on Taxes: In Kresock v. United States, a bankruptcy court’s denial of discharge was sustained by an appellate panel due tothe debtor’s bad behavior in connection with his tax debts. It is seemingly unusual for a general discharge denial to occur where the basis for denial is tax related.

Miscellaneous

The Passing of Michael Mulroney: Les and Keith share remembrances of Michael Mulroney, an emeritus professor at Villanova Law School.

Congress Should Make 2022 Donations to Ukraine Relief Deductible in 2021: In order to encourage taxpayers to make donations in support of Ukraine, this post recommends that Congress create a deduction similar to the one permitted for the Indian Ocean Tsunami Act, which allowed deductions made in the current tax year to be claimed on the prior year’s return.

Correction on Making Offers in Compromise Public

On February 21, 2022, I wrote a post because of the FOIA case involving EPIC v. IRS, 128 AFTR 2d 2021-6808 (DDC 2021).  My description of the EPIC case was accurate and my conclusion on how to get information about offers in compromise from the IRS was accurate – use FOIA; however, my description of the IRS method for delivering information about accepted offers in compromise was outdated.  I thank Steve Bauman of IRS SB/SE Collection for setting me straight.

In the earlier post I wrote about the system the IRS had devised for allowing public inspection of accepted offers.  The system did not make sense to me and was criticized in a TIGTA report in 2016 to which I cited in the post.  The IRS took the criticism from TIGTA to heart and revamped the system for accessing accepted offers.  I cannot say that I find the new system very user friendly for reasons I will describe further below, but it is not a system which will cost $100,000 per offer viewed which is what TIGTA calculated was the per view cost of the prior system.

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The IRS closed the public reading rooms as the depository of accepted offers back in 2018 and now keeps all accepted offers in a computer database that inquiring persons can access through the process described below:

Public Inspection files contain limited information regarding accepted Offers in Compromise such as the taxpayer name, city/state/zip, liability amount, and offer terms. View a sample Form 7249, Offer Acceptance Report PDF, to see the information you will receive by requesting a copy of a public inspection file.

The IRS makes available for public inspection a copy of Form 7249, Offer Acceptance Report, for one year after the date of acceptance.

If you wish to submit a request, complete and send the Offer in Compromise Public Inspection File Form PDF [aka Form 15086.] We will respond in 15 business days. Fax is the preferred method; if mailing, allow an additional 5 business days for a response.

If you link to the Offer Acceptance Report, you will see that you obtain very little information about the person or the offer.  As I mentioned in my original post several years ago about making offers public, I don’t find the information the IRS chooses to make public particularly helpful for stopping the type of abuse and scandal that caused offers to be made public in the first place.  Here’s my brief discussion of the history behind making offers public:

In the early 1950s, a scandal came to light in which an IRS employee used the compromise provisions to write off the liabilities of members of the criminal element.  The employee was prosecuted (see page 148 for a brief discussion of the events) and President Truman issued an executive order requiring that the IRS make accepted offers public.  Subsequently, Congress passed IRC 6103(K)(1) which provides for public inspection and copying of accepted OICs. 

You can look at the information provided on Form 7249 and decide for yourself if that information will assist in ferreting out inappropriate offers that might cause a scandal.

Moving past the information on the publicly available form which has not changed, I need to explain how the IRS has made its offer disclosure system better.  I think it is better but still not what it should be.  Gone are the remote reading rooms.  In their place the IRS has digitized its system for storing and retrieving Forms 7249.  Now, you send a request to the IRS via fax using the inspection file form linked above.  The problem with this form is that it will only cause the IRS to send you information about offers you already know about.  The first box on the form requests you to

Identify the Accepted Offer in Compromise (e.g. offer number, name, state) as specifically as possible below.

You can only do that if you already know about the offer.  How many people are looking for offers who already know an offer exists.  Maybe lots of people but I am unconvinced.  There is now way to browse through accepted offers to try to get a sense of what was accepted.  You must make a targeted request to use the new system.

The new system eliminates the wasteful reading room.  For that it is to be applauded.  If the goal is to prevent another scandal like the one in the 1950s, I think more information needs to be provided on Form 7249 and the accepted forms need to be browsed.

The IRM was updated in December of 2019 and provides the following guidance:

5.8.8.9 (12-17-2019)

Public Inspection File

1. Public inspection of certain information regarding all offers accepted under IRC § 7122 is authorized by IRC § 6103(k)(1).

2. Treasury Reg. § 601.702 (d) (8) requires that for one year after the date of execution, a copy of Form 7249 Offer Acceptance Report, for each accepted offer with respect to any liability for a tax imposed by Title 26, shall be made available for inspection and copying. A separate file of accepted offer records will be maintained for this purpose and made available to the public for a period of one year.

Note: 

Revenue Ruling 117, 1953-1 C.B. 498 complements Treasury Reg. § 601.702(d)(8) and explains that Form 7249 serves two different purposes. First, it provides the format for public inspection, which is mandated by Executive Order 10386. Second, it satisfies the filing requirement and other criteria arising under section 7122(b).

3. For each accepted offer, a copy of the Form 7249 should be uploaded to the PIF SharePoint site. Form 7249 must be free of any PII.

4. The office that has accepted the offer will be responsible for providing the Form 7249. The PIFs should be uploaded, without delay, to the PIF SharePoint site after acceptance.

5. The PIF must be:

– Maintained for one-year.

– Uploaded in the appropriate monthly folder and designated location based on the taxpayer’s entity address at the time of acceptance.

– Created with the established naming convention for uploading documents to the PIF SharePoint site.(Offer number. Name Control. Date Accepted) i.e. (1234567890.ABCD.MMDDYY)

– If within one year of acceptance a Form 7249 needs to be corrected (e.g. to remove periods that were discharged in bankruptcy, compromise of a compromise, or to obtain the signatures required in Delegation Order 5-1), the original Form 7249 should be deleted from the PIF SharePoint site, and the corrected Form 7249 uploaded with the same naming convention

6. Due to the potential disclosure of Personal Identifiable Information (PII) the Form 7249 will be reviewed and any PII will be redacted.

7. Memphis COIC will be the centralized PIF site which will monitor and track all Form 15086 PIF requests. Requests for OIC PIF will be provided by mail or fax per the instructions on www.irs.gov, the taxpayer will complete and submit Form 15086. If a request is received to copy more than 100 pages, contact OIC Collection Policy.

Note: 

A visitors log with the Form 15086 information will be retained on the PIF Sharepoint site. The visitor log book and the Form 15086 will be maintained by Memphis COIC.

I asked Steve how someone would make a broad request.  He said that for those seeking large volumes of data that would point to trends such as numbers of offer accepted, submitting a FOIA request would be necessary.  That’s why I said at the outset that although I wrongly described the continued existence of the reading rooms, the bottom line is that FOIA may be the only way to obtain meaningful information about accepted offers (as meaningful as you can get with the information provided on Form 7249) is by making a FOIA request.  I didn’t ask and it’s not clear to me if a FOIA request can allow someone to obtain information about offers going back past one year

Aside from my continued disappointment at the amount of information available and the process for getting the information, I want to thank Steve for taking the time to set me straight.  He disclosed useful information to me about the process of obtaining information about offers.

Making Offers in Compromise Public

I wrote a post several years ago about the public reading rooms that exist in a few cities around the country where the IRS makes public, for one year, the offers in compromise for the region covered by the city which houses the reading room.  I would be curious to learn how accessible those reading rooms have been during the pandemic considering they were not very accessible prior to the pandemic.  Because I believe very few people visited these reading rooms prior to the pandemic, I doubt that much has been lost if they have been relatively inaccessible the past couple years.  Back in 2016 when I wrote that post, TIGTA estimated that it cost the IRS about $100,000 per public viewing to maintain its Rube Goldberg system of publicly disclosing accepted offers.

TIGTA suggested that putting accepted offers online would provide a meaningful method for making offers public.  To my knowledge nothing has been done to implement TIGTA’s suggestion even though it would potentially save the IRS money while granting the public access.  Perhaps if the IRS had accepted TIGTA’s proposal, the case discussed in this post would not exist.

If you want to know more about accepted offers and are unwilling to seek to visit the public reading rooms, a better path may exist as suggested by a recent case.  This better path, if that accurately describes multi-year litigation, is not better than TIGTA’s suggestion to put this information online but may be better than cross-country travel to the well-hidden reading rooms.  Read on.

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The recent case of EPIC v. IRS, 128 AFTR 2d 2021-6808 (DDC 2021) provides another way to learn about offers in compromise – the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).  EPIC is an acronym for Electronic Privacy Information Center.  It sent a FOIA request to the IRS seeking, inter alia, certain tax records related to offers in compromise (OICs) involving former President Donald Trump and business entities associated with him.  As you might expect, the IRS opposed this request but before it opposed the request in court it failed to respond to the FOIA request, causing EPIC to bring a suit in order to seek to have a district court order the IRS to turn over this information, some of which might have been available in the OIC reading room in Buffalo, N.Y. based on the discussion in the prior blog post and where the former President lived.

EPIC requested:

((1)) All accepted offers-in-compromise relating to any past or present tax liability of Donald John Trump, the current President of the United States.

((2)) All other “return information…necessary to permit inspection of [the] accepted offer[s]-in-compromise” described in Category 1 of this request. Records responsive to Category 2 include, but are not limited to, “income, excess profits, declared value excess profits, capital stock, and estate or gift tax returns for any taxable year,” as applicable.

Similarly, with respect to the records of business entities associated with the former President, EPIC requested:

((3)) All accepted offers-in-compromise relating to any past or present tax liability of any entity identified in Appendix A [a fifteen-page list of the business entities associated with President Trump] of this request.

((4)) All other “return information…necessary to permit inspection of [the] accepted offer[s]-in-compromise” described in Category 3 of this request. Records responsive to Category 4 include, but are not limited to, “income, excess profits, declared value excess profits, capital stock, and estate or gift tax returns for any taxable year,” as applicable.

The IRS seeks to dismiss the suit, arguing that the FOIA request fails because it falls within Exemption 3 which “allows an agency to withhold records `specifically exempted from disclosure by statute’ if the statute meets certain criteria.”  The court notes that the parties agree that the requested records would fall within the ambit of FOIA but for the exception.  It states:

Thus, whether EPIC has stated a claim turns on whether the records at issue are covered by any of the thirteen exceptions such that the IRS must disclose them, which would in turn subject them to EPIC’s FOIA request. EPIC relies on § 6103(k)(1), which provides that “[r]eturn information shall be disclosed to members of the general public to the extent necessary to permit inspection of any accepted offer-in-compromise under section 7122 relating to the liability for a tax imposed by this title.” 26 U.S.C. §§ 6103(k)(1).

The IRS argues that the exception applies because EPIC lacks the taxpayer’s consent to receive these records and has no qualifying material interest in the records as described in § 6103(e).  EPIC says it doesn’t need consent or a qualifying material interest because of the requirement to make OICs public.  The court states:

There is no basis in the statute’s text or structure to import these requirements into § 6103(k)(1), which, after all, permits disclosure to “members of the general public.”

So, the IRS next argues that (k)(1) does not create a disclosure obligation to produce records to EPIC but the court quotes from the statute that Section 6103(k)(1) states that return information “shall be disclosed to the extent necessary to permit inspection of any accepted offer-in-compromise.”

Next the IRS argues:

that the phrase “to the extent necessary to permit inspection” gives it discretion to decide both the records it must disclose and the means necessary to disclose them. The Court agrees that phrase limits the records the IRS must disclose to those necessary to permit inspection of any accepted offer-in-compromise. But the IRS’s interpretation goes further. In its view, because the Secretary of the Treasury has by regulation established Public Inspection Files and a related non-FOIA in person inspection process—and determined that nothing more is “necessary” under § 6103(k)(1)—the exception does not afford EPIC any disclosure rights under FOIA.

The court disagrees.  It sees nothing in the statute that prohibits disclosure to EPIC and finds also that case law does not support the position that the IRS has no disclosure obligations to EPIC under (k)(1).  It finds that the IRS must disclose information to EPIC “to the extent that information is necessary to permit inspection of an accepted offer-in-compromise.”  The court does, however, make it clear that EPIC cannot receive former President Trump’s tax returns as part of this request.

I don’t know if EPIC received anything in the end.  I would think that if it did we would have learned about it in the popular press.  The case is not important to me as a way to learn the former President’s tax information but as a way of opening a window to offers in compromise generally.  The court does not seem to limit the time frame of the requirement to respond to the request.  So, FOIA might allow a party to obtain offer information beyond the information for only one year provided in the remote and relatively inaccessible reading rooms.  It might allow targeted requests for OIC information regarding individuals or entities but also might allow for broad based information requests that could save someone the time and effort of getting to one of the reading rooms. 

I do not have any projects going where I want to learn about offers the IRS has accepted.  If I did, EPIC seems to have laid out a path for using FOIA to bypass the remote and inaccessible reading rooms.  Hope springs eternal that the IRS might adopt TIGTA’s suggestion to put this information online, but until it does FOIA seems a better path than frequent flier miles.

FOIA Lawsuit for Information Gathered from Tax Practitioners

Today we welcome guest blogger Nick Xanthopoulos.  Nick was a staff attorney at Nevada Legal Services’ Low Income Taxpayer Clinic (LITC) from December 2014 until October 2016, and a staff attorney at Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid’s LITC from November 2016 until July 2019.  From August 2019 until November 2019, Nick was an attorney at Kennedy Law Offices, P.A., a boutique law firm in Eagan, Minnesota that represents clients in tax, business, and estate related legal matters.  Nick is currently on sabbatical. Tuan Samahon, a colleague of mine from Villanova, and Shawn Rodgers, both of whom specialize in FOIA litigation at Goldstein LP, will be handling the case. (Their pro hac vice motions are pending). Keith

Before 2018, tax professionals with an IRS power of attorney (Form 2848) on file went through a familiar process when calling the IRS to represent someone: we provided the taxpayer’s Social Security number (SSN) and name, our name and Centralized Authorization File (CAF) number (a unique identifier), and which tax years and forms we were authorized to discuss.  During these calls we were often asked additional information about the taxpayer to verify the taxpayer’s address or phone number but not personal information about ourselves.  Indeed, the Internal Revenue Manual (IRM), a guide that IRS employees are supposed to follow, says that only those items are needed to verify that a caller is an authorized third party.  (IRM 21.1.3.3(2).)

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In January 2018, the IRS changed the procedure with no advance notice, and obviously, no opportunity for comment by the affected parties.  Since then, IRS employees begin nearly every phone call by forcing practitioners to say our own SSN, date of birth, and other personal information.  In gathering this information, the IRS should take responsibility for the protection of this information under Internal Revenue Code (IRC) section 6103 but also allow practitioners to know how it uses and protects that information.  If we refuse to state our confidential information during the recorded phone call, IRS will not let us represent our clients, thereby worsening an access to justice gap.  If we do answer the questions about our personal information, it becomes part of the client’s file.  I know that the IRS records calls and keeps them in taxpayers’ files because I have secured at least 4 such recordings through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.  In at least 2 of them, an IRS employee insisted on me stating my SSN despite knowing that my client was listening.

I have had several clients who were victims of tax-related identify theft.  ID theft damage can only be mitigated, never fixed.  Yet no IRS employee has ever instilled me with any confidence that the IRS would redact my SSN from all recordings and all case notes.  As a result, I have refused to state my SSN during any call when I was representing a client.  Practitioners should never be forced to choose between representing someone as effectively as possible and protecting ourselves from identity theft or other misuse of our own personal information.  If the IRS published the procedures it follows to ensure practitioners’ information is kept separate from clients’ files, then practitioners could make an informed decision about whether it is safe to state our SSNs in order to represent our clients.

In June 2019, Professor Keith Fogg and I made a FOIA request for “IRS agency records relating to precautions taken to safeguard the confidentiality of return and return information taken by the IRS from tax practitioners.”  In response, the IRS directed us to the www.irs.gov version of IRM 21.1.3.3, which is heavily redacted, and provided no other agency records.  In explaining why it redacted much of IRM 21.1.3.3, the IRS claimed the “records or information [was] compiled for law enforcement purposes” and that release “would disclose techniques and procedures for law enforcement investigations or prosecutions or would disclose guidelines for law enforcement investigations or prosecutions if such disclosure could reasonably be expected to risk circumvention of the law.” When Professor Fogg and I administratively appealed the partial denial of our FOIA request, the IRS Independent Office of Appeals summarily upheld the IRS decision.

As a result, Professor Fogg and I sued the IRS. We filed a complaint on November 29, 2019, in US District Court in the District of Minnesota seeking production of the requested records.  The IRS claims that the new authentication procedure’s “intent is to enhance protections for tax professionals and their clients.”  (IRM 21.1.3.3(3).)  The public and tax practitioners should have the right to see agency records about how the IRS is protecting tax professionals when the IRS forces professionals to state their own confidential information in order to represent a taxpayer.

The treatment of the information of professionals seeking to represent taxpayers should not be the type of information that the IRS hides from the professionals to protect law enforcement.  These professionals are not the taxpayers in the case and are seeking only to represent the taxpayers.  To hide from them the uses of the information and the safeguards surrounding the information denies them the opportunity to make an informed decision.  This is particularly important when the IRS has adopted a procedure without notice and comment and without input from the affected community.

Tax professionals provide an important service to the tax system.  They should not be treated as criminals entitled to no voice in what personal information is elicited from them nor have the use of the information hidden from them. Of course, the IRS has an important job in making sure that it only provides a taxpayer’s information to a properly authorized representative. That aspect of its mission, however, does not give it carte blanche to gather and use all manner of information from the professionals who practice before it, especially without giving those professionals a voice in what information is gathered, the safeguards placed on that information and the uses of that information.

The goal of the FOIA litigation is to find out answers to these questions so that the practitioner community can begin to have a voice in how its information is used by the IRS and protected from abuse.  Please take a moment to learn more about this important issue by reading the FOIA complaint.  You can access the complaint (including exhibits) for free here, thanks to Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC).

FOIA Suit Seeking Trump’s Returns Fails

Over the past two plus years we have written four posts about Mr. Trump’s returns here, here, here and here. A good argument could be made that this is four posts too many; however, the recent decision of the DC Circuit in a FOIA case seeking those returns brought by the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) provides an opportunity to go beyond speculation about obtaining those returns and focus on how, in the interaction between FOIA and IRC 6103, the law does not permit third parties to use FOIA as a means of obtaining the returns or return information of others. In the course of ruling on this case the DC Circuit sets the IRS straight on the appropriate standard to apply to those making a FOIA request.

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Shortly after the 2016 election EPIC submitted a FOIA request to the IRS seeking the tax returns of Donald Trump for the years 2010 and forward. It also sought “any other indications of financial relations with the Russian government or Russian businesses.” Not surprisingly, the IRS declined to comply with the request. In declining the IRS provided two reasons: 1) the requested “documents, to the extent that any exists, consist of, or contain the tax returns or return information of a third party,” which “may not be disclosed unless specifically authorized by law” and 2) the IRS rules require consent of the third party when a request is made for their tax return. Because the IRS rules require the consent of the third party when a return is requested, the IRS did not even process the FOIA request.

EPIC submitted a second request trying a slightly different tack by citing to IRC 6103(k)(3). This provision allows the IRS to disclose return information to correct a misstatement of fact if correcting the misstatement is necessary to a tax administration purpose. This provision also requires that the IRS obtain the approval of the Joint Committee on Taxation before making a disclosure. The IRS responded to EPIC’s second request by notifying it that the second request also did not cite a basis for turning over to it the returns of President Trump. The IRS concluded this letter by notifying EPIC that it would not process any further requests from it on this topic.

EPIC brought suit seeking relief under both FOIA and the Administrative Procedure Act. The district court dismissed the suit and the DC Circuit affirmed the dismissal but in doing so provided some clarity regarding the reason for denying the request. The circuit court explained the interplay between FOIA and the IRC. It provided an explanation for how and when tax records stand outside the type of government record that can be obtained through a FOIA request. It noted, however, that the district court denied the request for failure to exhaust administrative remedies. That basis for dismissal was wrong but even though it was wrong other reasons for dismissing the case existed making the decision to deny the requested relief correct.

The court points out that this is not an ordinary exhaustion of remedies case where the litigant rushes to court without giving the agency the chance to consider the argument. Here, EPIC tried to get the IRS’ attention and got pushed away. The IRS argues that because EPIC’s request violated its published rules for considering a FOIA request by not obtaining President Trump’s permission to seek his tax returns EPIC did not exhaust the available administrative remedies. This is an interesting interpretation of the exhaustion doctrine which views the requester’s failure to do the impossible, obtain permission from a party who does not want to consent, as a failure to exhaust remedies.

According to the DC Circuit, the IRS “misunderstands its FOIA disclosure obligations. FOIA unambiguously places on an agency the burden of establishing that records are exempt.” To prevail, the IRS cannot rely on a perceived failure by the requester but must show that the information sought is subject to the IRC 6103(a) bar on disclosure. Although the Court agrees with the IRS that it can create published rules regarding the procedures to follow in making a request, the Court disagrees with the IRS that those rules can substantively shift the burden from the agency to the requester regarding the basis for denying the request. Here, “[n]one of the purposes of exhaustion supports barring judicial review of EPIC’s claims.” Still, the IRS has the ability to show that EPIC should not receive the requested documents by making a showing on the merits of the applicable statutes – which it does.

The scope of IRC 6103 in protecting taxpayer records is broad but is still limited in scope. The court notes that “[n]ot all IRS records constitute tax returns or return information.” It cites as an example of material not covered by those definitions the legal analysis contained in IRS Field Service Advice Memoranda. Here, the first part of EPIC’s request, the request for President Trump’s tax returns, clearly falls within the scope of tax returns and return information and “is plainly covered by section 6103(a)’s bar.”

With respect to the requested information concerning financial relations with Russia, the court finds that the request is framed in such a way that answering it reveals the fact that tax returns were filed, making any response one which would disclose tax returns or return information. Therefore, the court denies this request as well.

Moving on to EPIC’s revised request citing to 6103(k)(3), the court finds that this provision was not designed as a provision for parties to make a request to the IRS but rather for the IRS to make a decision to disclose information to avoid problems with tax administration. The court finds “Congress’s omission of any public right to ‘request’ disclosure under section 6103(k)(3) is intentional.” So, this provision affords the requestor no disclosure right. EPIC’s claim based on this provision fails.

Lastly, the court looks at the APA as a basis to disclose the returns. It finds that the APA claim should be dismissed because FOIA, not the APA, provides the basis for the remedy sought by the requestor. The fact that FOIA does not allow disclosure under this circumstance does not mean that the APA provides a separate remedy.

No doubt we have not heard the last of attempts to obtain President Trump’s returns. The harder people try to obtain the returns without success, the more respect I have for the IRS and the states in their administration of the disclosure laws. Maybe one day we will see the returns and learn great secrets. In the meantime we should appreciate that the disclosure laws which were tightened significantly in response to President Nixon’s attempts to misuse the IRS seem to be working well.

 

 

Professor Kwoka Sues IRS and Explains the Path of FOIA in Two Recent Important Law Review Articles

Kwoka v IRS is a FOIA case from a federal district court in the District of Columbia. The case involves Professor Margaret Kwoka, one of the leading scholars of government secrecy in general and FOIA in particular. In the lawsuit, Professor Kowka is seeking records that categorize FOIA requests IRS received in 2015, including the names and organizational affiliations of third-party requesters and the organizational affiliation of first-party requesters. The IRS provided some of the information she sought, but not all of it.

In this post I will briefly describe Professor Kwoka’s research project and turn to the particular suit that generated last month’s opinion.

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Professor Kwoka teaches at the University of Denver Strum School of Law. Her recent research focuses on FOIA and how it has strayed from its main purpose of allowing third party requesters (like the press and non profits) holding government accountable.  A 2016 article in the Duke Law Journal, FOIA, Inc.  chronicles the growth at some agencies of commercial FOIA requests, that is requests that are primarily motivated by commercial interests of the requesters. A 2018 article in the Yale Law Journal, First-Person FOIA, highlights the rapid growth in FOIA cases from people or their lawyers or other representatives seeking information about their particular case, often to use in other litigation or administrative actions. It is these FOIA cases that are made by so called first person requesters.

The First-Person FOIA article has particular resonance for people interested in tax administration, as practitioners and taxpayers frequently turn to FOIA to learn more about their case as they challenge an IRS determination. The article looks at agencies like the Department of Veterans Affairs and Social Security Administration and Professor Kwoka demonstrates that a “significant amount of first-person FOIA requesting serves as a means for private individuals to arm themselves when they are subject to governmental enforcement actions or seek to make their best case for a government benefit.”

First-Person FOIA makes the case that while FOIA provides a vehicle for people to get needed information about their cases it has significant shortcomings when used for that purpose. The article does not minimize the need for access to information; she suggests solutions for individual access outside of FOIA, including expanding individuals’ online access to information and limited administrative discovery. Yet Kwoka argues that while “these requests represent legitimate efforts by private individuals to obtain information about themselves, they serve largely private, not public interests.” That, as Kwoka notes, has led some observers to question FOIA’s value and perhaps will have the unintended effect of reducing its role as helping the public keep government accountable, a goal that seems as important today as it did in the post-Watergate era when sunshine laws like FOIA took root as one way to keep government accountable.

That takes us to the lawsuit that Professor Kwoka filed to get more information so she could properly catalogue the FOIA requests IRS received in FY 2015. In her study Kwoka sought information about requesters from 22 different agencies; only six gave her the information she needed; three provided the information in publicly available form on their websites. IRS was one of seven agencies that provided some information but due to withholdings or redactions Professor Kwoka could not use it in her study. That is what led to her suing the IRS to get more specific information about the FOIA requesters and their affiliations. In particular in her FOIA request, she sought “[t]he name of the requester for any third-party request (for first-party requests I accept this will be redacted)” and “[t]he organizational affiliation of the requester, if there is one.”

In the suit IRS relied on Exemptions 3 and 6 to withhold the names of the third party requesters and the organizational affiliations of the first and third party requesters. Exemption 3 essentially requires IRS to withhold information that is exempted from disclosure under another statute—the biggie in tax cases is the general restriction on release of taxpayer information in Section 6103. Exemption 6 allows an agency to withhold “personnel and medical files and similar files the disclosure of which would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”

With respect to its Exemption 3 defense, IRS argued that need not reveal the names or organizational affiliations of FOIA requesters because doing so could “reveal protected tax information including, but not limited to[,] the identity of a taxpayer.”   As part of its defense IRS pointed to the online log of FOIA requests that it maintains (see for example its FY 2015 log).  The IRS argued that if Kwoka obtained the names and organizational affiliation of third-party requesters, she could cross-reference that information with the online log and deduce the identities of the taxpayers.

The opinion pushed back on this, noting firstly that the topics the log lists are vague and more importantly  the “IRS’s conclusion does not follow from its premises.”

Even armed with the information she requests and the publicly accessible FOIA log, in most cases Kwoka could not know with any certainty the identity of particular taxpayers. Neither the log nor the information Kwoka requests generally reveals the target of a FOIA request—i.e., the person whose tax records the requester is seeking. Thus, for third-party requests in which a requester submits a request for someone else’s information, knowing the name and organizational affiliation of the requester (from her own FOIA request) in conjunction with the topic of the request (from the publicly accessible log) would not reveal the identity of the target of the request.

The requests for the organizational affiliations of the first-party requesters was a somewhat more nuanced issue, but there too the court sided with Kowka over the IRS argument that exemption 3 allowed a blanket excuse to withhold on all of the requested information:

In most cases, the same is true for first-party requesters who request their own tax return information. Kwoka concedes that the IRS can redact the names of first-party requesters, see FOIA Request; she asks only for their organizational affiliations. But because most organizations have many affiliated individuals, knowing a requester’s organizational affiliation—even in conjunction with the topic of the request—would not ordinarily reveal the identity of the requester (and thus the identity of the taxpayer). There may be a few exceptions where, for example, a particular organization has only one affiliate, or where a topic listed in the publicly accessible FOIA log is so specific (in contrast to the majority of the entries) that it would, in conjunction with the requester’s organizational affiliation, effectively reveal the first-party requester’s identity. See Def.’s Reply at 8 (arguing that “a FOIA request made by the owner of an individually held or closely held company, in concert with the subject of the request, would be enough to reveal the identity of the individual making the request”). Kwoka also concedes that “[w]here an individual requests tax records about the organization that is identical to the individual’s organizational affiliation as recorded in the IRS’s records, … the organizational affiliation would be subject to redaction.”

The opinion moved on to Exemption 6, which employs a balancing test and allows agencies to withhold certain information when disclosing it would result in a “clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”  IRS argued that it could rely on Exemption 6 for a blanket witthhoding of the requested information For reasons similar to its rejection of Exemption 3, the court disagreed with the IRS:

For many of the same reasons the IRS is not entitled to a blanket invocation of exemption 3, it is not entitled to one under exemption 6. The IRS argues that “third-party FOIA requesters in this case [would] be subject to harassment, stigma, retaliation, or embarrassment if their identities were revealed” and that “[t]he average citizen has ample reason not to want the world to know that someone else has used the FOIA to obtain information regarding his federal tax liabilities, or his tax examination status.” But, as explained above, in most cases, revealing the organizational affiliations of first-party requesters and the names and organizational affiliations of third-party requesters would not reveal the targetof the request. Moreover, FOIA requesters “freely and voluntarily address[] their inquiries to the IRS, without a hint of expectation that the nature and origin of their correspondence w[ill] be kept confidential.” Stauss v. IRS, 516 F. Supp. 1218, 1223 [48 AFTR 2d 81-5617] (D.D.C. 1981)…

Conclusion

The case continues, as the court concluded that the IRS could not rely on Exemptions 3 and 6 to provide a categorical denial of Professor Kwoka’s request though it may in specific instances rely on those exemptions as a basis for redacting or withholding information.

Kudos to Professor Kwoka for her important research and her efforts to uncover more information about the nature of FOIA requests across the government.

District Court Allows IRS to Use Glomar Defense In FOIA Suit Seeking Whistleblower Info

This summer I discussed Mongomery v IRS, a FOIA case that was the latest in a long saga of litigation between the Montgomery family and the IRS.  This past month the district court returned to the FOIA dispute and partially resolved the case in favor of the government. In so doing it considered a so-called Glomar defense, when the government seeks to neither confirm nor deny the existence of the records that are the subject of a FOIA request.

As a refresher, the family’s partnership transactions attracted the attention of the IRS, leading to court opinions that upheld the determination that the partnerships were shams and that the IRS properly issued final partnership administrative adjustments, but also a separate refund suit that the IRS ultimately settled, leading to an almost $500,000 refund.  The Montgomerys filed a FOIA claim because they wanted to unearth how the IRS came to scrutinize the transacations, with a particular interest in finding out if there was an informant that spilled some of the partnership beans.

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To that end, they filed FOIA requests for two distinct categories of records: 1) various forms the IRS uses in connection with whistleblower cases and 2) lists, documents and correspondence with third parties concerning the partnership investments or the Montgomerys’ personal tax liability.

This past summer the court denied a summary judgment motion that the IRS filed that claimed that a settlement agreement the IRS and Montgomerys entered into prevented a FOIA suit. That opinion cleared the way for a decision on the merits of the FOIA suit, which takes us up to the district court opinion issued this past month and this post.

The main issue in the case involves the FOIA claims that sought the whistleblower information. IRS took what is known as a Glomar response, which is neither to deny nor confirm the existence of the records. This is a tactic the government has used in other types of cases but to my knowledge not in tax cases. The so-called Glomar response originates from the Cold War and the government’s desire to keep secret its efforts to uncover a sunken Soviet submarine:

In certain circumstances, […] an agency may refuse to confirm or deny that it has relevant records. This “Glomar response” derives from a ship, the Hughes Glomar Explorer, about which the CIA refused to confirm or deny the existence of records. See Phillippi v. CIA, 546 F.2d 1009, 1011 (D.C. Cir. 1976). Such responses are appropriate only when “`confirming or denying the existence of records would’ itself reveal protected information.” Bartko v. DOJ, 62 F. Supp. 3d 134, 141 (D.D.C. 2014) (quoting Nation Magazine v. U.S. Customs Serv., 71 F.3d 885, 893 (D.C. Cir. 1995)).

Despite Glomar having pedigree as a judicial exception to FOIA, the opinion notes that when the government raises a Glomar defense, it still needs to tether the defense to one of the nine statutory FOIA exemptions. In this case, the government asserted Exemption 7D:

Exemption 7(D) excludes from disclosure “records or information compiled for law enforcement purposes, but only to the extent that the production of such law enforcement records or information could reasonably be expected to disclose the identity of a confidential source … [who] furnished information on a confidential basis.” 5 U.S.C § 552(b)(7)(D).

There was no disagreement over whether the records (if they existed) were filed for law enforcement purposes, which is the threshold requirement under 7D. Instead, the opinion turned on whether there was an expectation that the source (again if it or they existed) who spoke to the government expected the information to remain confidential. Yet as my parenthetical notes that question presupposes that an informant exists:

The difficulty here is that if the Government describes its interactions with a specific source, it would thereby undercut the protection that Glomar provides. In other words, because a Glomar response is meant to obscure the very existence of the source (or attempted source), the Government cannot offer any public statement concerning the confidentiality assurances given to that source (or a statement that no source exists). As the Service persuasively argues, even though the identity of an informant may not be at risk in every case, to protect whistleblowers in cases where disclosure of the existence of records could lead to their identification, it must assert Glomar whenever an informant is involved.

The opinion nicely frames how the court must consider not only the content of the documents but the possible harm arising from revealing the very existence of the documents:

For example, in a situation where there is only one suspected whistleblower, the Service’s affirmative or negative response to a request for certain forms would either confirm or refute the suspicion. Either the documents exist, in which case the identity of the informant could be apparent even if the IRS does not release anything, or they do not. Even though the non-existence of records does not implicate a harm cognizable under Exemption 7(D), the IRS can only protect against the damage that confirming such records would engender by asserting Glomar in all situations.

This suggests a robust role for asserting Glomar in the context of FOIA requests seeking information relating to informants. Yet the opinion notes that Glomar is not a blank check for the IRS in these cases, as the government must offer a public explanation why the exemption applies and then provide for in camera review to allow a district court judge to confirm the agency’s conclusions before it will allow Glomar to swat away the FOIA claims.

The government did that in this case, relying on IRS employee affidavits which attested to its policy of asserting Glomar consistently “when a requester seeks records pertaining to a confidential informant in order to protect the identity of whistleblowers” to avoid giving requesters sufficient information “to determine when [it] is protecting records and when there are no records to protect.”

During in camera review, the government was able to establish that either no records existed, or if they did exist, the informant had an express or implied expectation of privacy when dealing with the IRS. As such, the court granted the government’s summary judgment motion as relating to the FOIA request for forms the IRS uses in connection with whistleblower cases.

Conclusion

This is a significant victory for the IRS and paves the way for future Glomar responses in FOIA cases where someone is seeking information to determine if there was an informant that led to an IRS investigation.

It is not, however, the end of the line. Montgomery has also sought information pertaining to correspondence with other third parties concerning the partnership investments or their personal tax liability. That part of the FOIA dispute continues. Stay tuned for at least one more chapter in this case.