Under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), the public is entitled to access agency records unless they are protected from disclosure by one of the FOIA’s exemptions or exclusions. The Internal Revenue Service complies with the FOIA by maintaining publicly available materials on the Internet, staffing the IRS Public Reading Room in Washington, D.C., and by responding to written requests for agency records not available in the Reading Room.
The FOIA requires the IRS to make descriptions of the IRS organization, its methods of operation, rules of procedures, and substantive rules of general applicability available in the Federal Register. In addition, the public is entitled to access final opinions in the adjudication of cases, statements of policy and interpretations, administrative staff manuals and instructions to staff, and copies of records released in response to FOIA requests.
Any person making a FOIA request must make it specific enough to permit an IRS employee to reasonably ascertain exactly what records are being requested in order to locate them. A proper FOIA request applies only to existing records, and the law does not require the IRS to gather information it does not have or to research or analyze data for a requester.
The IRS may deny a FOIA request if the requested information falls under one of the FOIA’s nine statutory exemptions. The exemptions protect against the disclosure of information that would harm national security, the privacy of individuals, the proprietary interests of business, the functioning of the government, and other important recognized interests. If a document contains some exempt information, a requester may still be entitled to any portions of the record that may be reasonably segregated with the exempt portions deleted.
The FOIA also contains three special protection provisions that authorize federal law enforcement agencies to treat records as not subject to the FOIA if the records are particularly sensitive under certain specified circumstances, such as documents relating to an ongoing criminal investigation or pertaining to foreign intelligence or terrorism. Under those circumstances, the IRS may not even be required to confirm the existence of a requested record. However, the exclusions do not broaden the authority of the IRS to withhold documents from the public. The exclusions are only applicable to information that is otherwise exempt from disclosure.
When the IRS denies a FOIA request, the requester may challenge the determination through an administrative appeal. If that appeal is denied, the requester has the right to appeal the denial in court, where the burden of justifying the withholding of documents is on the IRS.