Leak of billionaires' tax data draws GOP outcry over privacy

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2020 CQ-Roll Call, Inc.

Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, speaks during a Senate Finance Committee hearing on the IRS budget request on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, June 8, 2021. (Tom Williams/Pool via AP)

WASHINGTON – Republicans in Congress are alarmed by the leak of confidential IRS data to the investigative news organization ProPublica, enabling it to reveal that famous billionaires including Warren Buffett, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg paid little in U.S. income tax at times. A senior IRS official said Thursday that a federal criminal investigation into the leak has been requested.

Taking a detour from the debate over President Joe Biden’s tax overhaul plan, the GOP lawmakers are demanding to know how the private tax data was disclosed and they are pressing the Treasury Department and the IRS to pursue anyone who violated the law.

“Taxpayers must have the utmost confidence in federal institutions that house their personal and confidential information,” a group of Republican senators said in letters demanding an investigation. “Regrettably, it appears personnel with access to Americans’ personal and confidential information are misusing protected information for political reasons. Treasury and the IRS must hold accountable any and all individuals who broke federal law by inappropriately sharing the confidential tax information and tax returns of multiple Americans.”

Douglas O'Donnell, a deputy IRS commissioner, said at a hearing by a House panel that the Treasury Department, which oversees the IRS, has referred the matter for investigation to the FBI and the U.S. attorney's office in the District of Columbia.

Both getting access to and disclosing the confidential tax data are problems, O'Donnell said. “We too want to know what happened, urgently."

The law provides for potential criminal penalties for federal employees or other individuals who leak tax information.

The ProPublica report published Tuesday on the wealthiest people in America was based on IRS data — long held as sacrosanct — delivered by an anonymous source.

For Democrats, the revelations affirmed their long-standing accusations that the IRS gives big corporations and wealthy individuals a free pass while hounding lower-income people. Democrats held up the new report as a prime exhibit in the national dialogue over the vast and widening inequality between the wealthiest and everyone else.