The Washington Post reported that in his complaint, the whistleblower said he was told thatat least one Treasury official hadattempted to improperly influence the IRS examination. The person declined to discuss specifics in an interview with the Post.
The scant details come even as the other whistleblower — the one describing Trump’s bid to force Ukraine to investigate his rival Joe Biden — has precipitated the impeachment inquiry now consuming the capital.
A big difference between the cases is that the IRS one is hampered by strict taxpayer secrecy laws. It is a felony to disclose private taxpayer information, including details of the president’s returns, which makes it difficult for lawmakers and the whistleblower alike to go public with the specifics of the allegations.
There are ways around those restrictions, and some predict more information will eventually come out, though some experts say it’s also possible the public will never learn anything more about what the IRS whistleblower is alleging.
For now, the case has many scratching their heads.
“It’s a bit hard to pin down, and know what exactly is being claimed,” said Dean Zerbe, a longtime expert on whistleblowers who represents them at the firm Zerbe, Miller, Fingeret, Frank & Jadav.
House Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal (D-Mass.), who is demanding six years’ worth of Trump’s tax records, says he needs them to determine how well the IRS is implementing its long-standing policy of automatically auditing the president. Those examinations, which are conducted in secret by career IRS officials, are supposed to be free from political influence. Democrats are using the whistleblower’s complaint to buttress their lawsuit, now in federal court in Washington.
The Post described the whistleblower as a career IRS official who said he had been told by someone else of the allegation. The report did not say by whom, and the whistleblower wouldn’t go into any details of his allegations.
“I steadfastly refuse to discuss the substance or detail of the complaint, but I have some legitimate concerns about reckless statements being made about whistleblowers,” the person said.
It’s a felony punishable by up to five years in prison to improperly release private tax information, and that doesn’t just includewhat’s in someone’s return. So-called return information is also protected, such as the details of the mechanics of any audits.
The rules, laid out in Section 6103 of the tax code, allow whistleblowers to take their complaints to lawmakers, who can investigate them privately, but it’s hard for either to speak publicly.
“The contents of the complaint are protected by 6103 so the committee can’t discuss it,” said Dan Rubin, a Neal spokesperson.
All of that makes it tough to assess the credibility of the whistleblower, let alone the specifics of his complaint or how he claims to know the information. Under a 1998 law, it would be a felony for the White House to try to influence an IRS audit. It’s conceivable there are less nefarious explanations as well, some note.
“My guess, without knowing the facts, is that it was some idiot at Treasury who called over there without knowing he shouldn’t be doing that,” speculated one Washington tax veteran.
Zerbe, who previously worked on the Senate Finance Committee, says whistleblowers approach the tax committees from time to time, though their allegations of wrongdoing aren’t always borne out.
“We would get these kinds of allegations on the committee more than you’d think — not dealing with the president but, ‘Oh, they’re targeting this group or they’re going after that group,’” he said. “People of good faith would bring them forward, and we would look at them in good faith. But often, when you looked at it, you understood why the government took the actions they did, and no, it wasn’t because they didn’t like this organization.
“I would keep a foot on the ground in terms of what may or may not be there,” Zerbe said.
It’s unclear whether Democrats have spoken with the whistleblower. Earlier this month,Neal told Massachusetts reporters thatHouse lawyers are “trying to interview the individual.” Bloomberg News reported Neal is considering releasing the whistleblower’s complaint, though a Neal spokesperson emphasized the chairman said that’s “subject to what counsel advises.”
There are some ways details of the complaint could be released. A judge could order them released as part of Neal’s lawsuit. The Ways and Means Committee could vote in private to make the information public, as the panel has previously done in rare instances. The specifics could also be leaked anonymously to the news media, despite the secrecy laws.
Among those wondering about the whistleblower: Trump’s lawyers. In a court filing late last month, they complained they still don’t know much about the allegations.
“The committee does not explain how these allegations are in any way related to its demands to see six years of tax returns and return information, let alone why only the tax returns and return information can satisfy its supposed legislative interest such that further negotiations are not even worthwhile,” they said.