More than two years after her upstart Senate campaign rocked the Delaware political world, Christine O'Donnell got an unexpected contact from a U.S. Treasury Department agent warning that her private tax records may have been breached.
The phone message earlier this year shocked the battled-scarred candidate, a tea party favorite who knocked off Republican mainstay Michael Castle in the primary before losing in a bid to win Vice President Joseph R. Biden’s former seat.
“Ms. O'Donnell, this is Dennis Martel, special agent with the U.S. Department of Treasury in Baltimore, Md. … We received information that your personal federal tax info may have been compromised and may have been misused by an individual,” he said in the January message left on her cellphone.
For Ms. O'Donnell, the message immediately raised red flags.
On March 9, 2010, the day she revealed her plan to run for the Senate in a press release, a tax lien was placed on a house purported to be hers and publicized. The problem was she no longer owned the house. The IRS eventually blamed the lien on a computer glitch and withdrew it.
Now Mr. Martel, a criminal investigator for the Treasury Department’s inspector general for tax administration, was telling her that an official in Delaware state government had improperly accessed her records on that very same day.
Beyond that, Ms. O'Donnell and Senate investigators who have tried to help her have run into a wall of silence, leaving more questions than answers about whether abuses of the IRS system extend to private individuals and not just the tax-exempt groups already identified as victims.
“I don’t know. And I’d like to know,” Ms. O’Donnell told The Washington Times in her first interview about the case. “Because whether it’s one, eight or 80 [cases], it’s an abuse of power at the IRS. It’s using the IRS as a political weapon, and that shouldn’t be done.”
Investigators for Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, an influential Republican who serves on the Finance and Judiciary committees, have uncovered one key issue: a backdoor system in which state officials can access Americans’ private tax records in the name of investigating with little oversight or accountability.
The Treasury Department’s tax watchdog has informed Mr. Grassley that at least four politicians or political donors have had their personal tax records improperly accessed through that system since 2006, including one case in which a willful violation of federal law was identified.
But the Justice Department has declined to prosecute any of the offenders. Treasury officials have refused to give Mr. Grassley any specifics on the cases or to describe the disposition of Ms. O'Donnell’s case, claiming even people who improperly access tax records have an assumption of privacy under federal tax laws.
Mr. Grassley scoffs at that explanation and is demanding answers from the Treasury and Justice departments.
“Taxpayer confidentiality laws are important. The purpose of those laws is to prevent and deter inappropriate uses of taxpayer information, not to prevent public scrutiny when that confidentiality has been breached or keep the victim in the dark,” Mr. Grassley told The Times.
“A taxpayer should be able to know whether someone breached his or her confidentiality, whether any investigation resulted, and the outcome of that investigation. … I look forward to whether the Justice Department sheds any light on its decision not to prosecute what the inspector general called inappropriate and in one case willfully inappropriate access to taxpayer records.”
All the IRS will say is that the one person believed to have willfully misused the tax record system worked outside the agency.
Ms. O'Donnell has spent the past six months trying to find out more about what happened to her personally, with little success.
Investigators have told her the probe has been closed, without offering an explanation. Ms. O'Donnell’s attempts to get records about the possible misuse of her tax files through Freedom of Information Act requests have been delayed or denied.
Mr. Martel did not return calls seeking comment, and Senate investigators have been unable to get permission to interview him about Ms. O'Donnell’s case.
The mystery aside, the incident has shined a spotlight on the access non-IRS employees have to Americans’ personal tax records.
Ms. O'Donnell and congressional aides have been told that criminal investigators in states have the ability to dial into the IRS database.
There is little public knowledge of such inquiries, and whether they are legally justified or if they’re being abused by those with political axes to grind.