Following up on my previous posts (links below): Forbes, Disclosing President Trump's Tax Returns — An Unconventional Idea, by Bryan Camp (Texas Tech) & Victor Thuronyi (former Lead Counsel, (Taxation), IMF):
Lots of folks want to see Donald Trump’s tax returns. Conventional wisdom is that the returns cannot be disclosed unless he consents. That conventional wisdom is based on the general rule contained in 26 U.S.C. § 6103(a). The general rule forbids IRS employees (and some folks who receive information from IRS employees) from disclosing “return information.” That is a term of art that means not just tax returns but also just about anything in the IRS files.
Section 6103 is a really complex statute, mostly because of the exceptions to the general rule. The exceptions are found in subsections (c) through (o). These exceptions balance a taxpayer’s privacy with the needs of government officers and employees to do their jobs. So the exceptions to the general rule can get quite gnarly.
Several commentators have begun to explore some of the lesser-known exceptions to the general rule of nondisclosure. George Yin has a nice op-ed piece that explains one exception to the general rule in § 6103: Congress can ask for Trump’s returns. Andy Grewal also explores this idea in a well-done post over at the Yale regulation blog. Both posts are worth reading.
Both George and Andy focus on the power of certain congressional committees and staff to ask for tax returns as part of their oversight function. That power is found in § 6103(f)(1) through (f)(4). Democrats have acted on the ideas in George and Andy’s blogs. Stephen Ohlemacher from the AP reports that Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee tried to get the committee to ask for Trump’s returns, but were outvoted by committee Republicans.
But what if the returns were dumped on the committee’s lap by an IRS employee without the Committee having made a request? That could happen under the very last paragraph in subsection (f).
Section §6103(f)(5) is a whistleblower exception to the general rule of nondisclosure. It permits disclosure of tax returns to one of the tax-writing committees by “any person who otherwise has or had access to any return or return information under this section” when that person believes that “such return or return information may relate to possible misconduct, maladministration, or taxpayer abuse.”
The plain language of this provision suggests that an IRS employee who otherwise has authorized access to Trump’s tax returns could blow the whistle on Trump if that employee believes Trump’s tax returns related to “possible misconduct” or “possible maladministration.” ...
However, while §6103(f)(5) is a possible avenue for an IRS employee to blow the whistle on Trump, two obstacles make it a tricky one. First, despite the statute’s broad language, the history of its enactment suggests that the language may refer only to the misconduct or maladministration by the IRS or its employees. Second, only an IRS employee who has proper access to return information is permitted to disclose. ...
We have never before had a President so vulnerable to conflicts of interest and, at the same time, so callous about his governing duties and so careless of the law. This potent combination requires checks; it requires balances. Checks and balances are what have enabled this country to thrive for over 200 years. A review of Trump’s tax returns is but a small part of what is necessary to check on his behavior. If the Congress does not have the political will to use its powers, there remains a possibility that a whistle-blower from the IRS or a State agency could force the issue.
Prior TaxProf Blog coverage: