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Senate Republicans seek investigation into leak of wealthy's tax returns

The recent leak is “one of the most significant and widespread breaches in the agency’s history,” senators wrote.

Updated: June 14, 2021 - 11:24pm

The release of confidential tax returns for some of the wealthiest Americans sparked controversy last week, and now Senate Republicans are demanding answers.

Senate Republicans sent a letter to the federal oversight inspector general for tax issues calling for an investigation after ProPublica obtained and released tax returns of wealthy Americans, information that is supposed to remain confidential.

“Congress and the American people have a right to know how and why it appears that confidential information was allegedly obtained or leaked from the IRS and how their information will be used and protected moving forward,” the letter reads.

The controversy began when the news outlet ProPublica published a story headlined: “The Secret IRS Files: Trove of Never-Before-Seen Records Reveal How the Wealthiest Avoid Income Tax.”

That story included information about Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Tesla’s Elon Musk, among others.

“ProPublica’s description of the data and the nature of the information published strongly suggests that the information originated from within the Internal Revenue Service (IRS),” the letter reads. “If this is true, this constitutes a serious breach of privacy and is a criminal violation of our tax laws. It would be one of the most significant and widespread breaches in the agency’s history and considerably damages the foundational bedrock of our tax system, including American taxpayers’ confidence that the IRS will keep their personal information confidential.

“The American people deserve a thorough, independent investigation into how this information came to be published to understand how and why confidential information is apparently being leaked or obtained from the IRS, to find those responsible, and to criminally prosecute where warranted,” the letter adds.

ProPublica received both praise and criticism for the decision to publish the story and the confidential tax information. This is not the first time the news outlet, which describes itself as “a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power,” has published documents like this.

“In 2012, ProPublica obtained confidential pending applications for tax-exempt status originally submitted to the IRS; and, again in 2013, ProPublica obtained applications or documentation for 31 groups, including some that had not yet been approved, meaning that they were not supposed to be made public,” the Senators’ letter reads.

The publication, though, has stood behind its decision to publish this time, and in the past.

“In 2012, someone at the IRS (we don’t know who or why; they used a plain brown IRS envelope) sent ProPublica copies of tax filings seeking exemption for a number of political committees, including Republican political guru Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS. The filings were not yet supposed to be public, and the IRS indicated that it would consider our publication of them to be criminal. We explained our view of the constitutionality of that statute as applied in such circumstances and published our story, which raised concerns about whether Rove’s group had been forthcoming with the agency. We never heard about the matter from the IRS again.”

“We hope you will read today’s story and the following stories in the series, and perhaps participate in the public debate about the future of our tax system,” ProPublica added.