Startup Think Tank on a Mission to Audit the IRS

Members of the newly formed Tax Revolution Institute gather for the Pennsylvania Leadership Conference. (Atlas Network)
Staff members of the newly formed Tax Revolution Institute gather for the Pennsylvania Leadership Conference in April. (Atlas Network)

When Gallup polled Americans on their views of federal agencies, you can guess which came out the worst. Almost half of respondents rated the Internal Revenue Service poorly, below even the Federal Reserve System.

This dissatisfaction with the IRS has been on the rise over the past decade, particularly in the wake of the Tea Party targeting scandal and numerous instances of asset seizures from innocent people. In response, a new policy institute is pulling back the curtain regarding what is going on behind the scenes, and since July they’ve made a crowd-sourcing appeal to US citizens.

The Tax Revolution Institute (TRI), which opened its doors earlier this year, has a niche focus: zero in on shortcomings and corruption of the IRS, with an eye on achieving broad-based and bipartisan tax reform. Unlike the congressional push to audit the Fed, which has been stalled for the past few years, the research group or think tank is conducting what they describe as the first ever independent attempt to audit the IRS, “with the help of the American public.”

TRI Executive Director Dan Johnson explains that “For decades, the IRS has failed to live up to the standards of transparency that it enforces on the American public.” He points to a lack of independent oversight and no accountability for wrongdoing: “The IRS routinely denies requests for information, ignores subpoenas, and even destroys records. When the agency does provide information, it is often misleading and inaccurate.”

What makes a call to audit the IRS particularly difficult is that so many people fear retribution. They don’t want to be the ones to face targeting and costly audits of their own. The TRI press release states that this is a double standard, since while the IRS keeps its own actions private it demands “up to six years of accurate financial information from individuals, subject them to audits, and impose large fines and penalties — even in the absence of due legal process.”

TRI pledges to never reveal the identity of anyone coming forward, unless he invites them to do so. TRI staff hope this confidentiality will bring forth many personal experiences, submitted on their new website, They list 55 areas of research — ranging from diversity in hiring to militarization of enforcement — which makes the project a tall order.

The response thus far, Johnson says, has been more than they expected, with approximately 100 people sharing their cases. In fact, TRI is already working on a mini documentary on one of those stories, likely to be out before the end of the year.

A pattern is emerging, he adds. The reported agents show “a complete lack of humanity, a lack of service and caring [towards the] people.… We had one case where the IRS agents had decided that this guy’s dad owed them some money, and his dad died. On the day of the funeral, the treasury agent was rifling through the dad’s truck looking for anything of value.… If the agents had just been more human when dealing with people, a lot of the people who contacted us, their lives would have been made a whole lot easier.”

Former Idaho State Representative Phil Hart (2004-2012) has had a long-term legal dispute with the IRS, which eventually led him to declare bankruptcy. He was not aware of the TRI campaign, but in a phone interview welcomed further scrutiny of IRS activities: “Their approach to proving that they’re right is they are stronger than their opponent, so might makes right. There are lots of unanswered questions … they just refuse to answer them.”

Hart paraphrased former US Representative Ron Paul: “With the IRS you’re guilty until you’re proven innocent, and that’s unconstitutional.” He laments what he sees as an agency outside the rule of law: “We’re not in the same system that the Founding Fathers gave us.… We’re not in the republic anymore.… You’re a slave and you’ve got to do what the bureaucrat tells you to do.”

A former IRS agent, upon seeing the TRI site and audit, declined to comment. Similarly, the IRS media-relations team directed a phone call to email and have yet to respond.

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