IRS data: Privacy rights vs. finding the missing kids

  • Article by: JEREMY HERB , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 2, 2011 - 10:29 PM

Patty Wetterling and Sen. Amy Klobuchar say IRS data should be accessible in abduction investigations.

WASHINGTON - Federal Treasury officials looking at missing children cases and tax returns found something odd: Of the more than 1,700 cases they examined, more than a third of the children had been declared on tax returns by the relatives suspected of abducting them.

Now U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar and missing children's advocate Patty Wetterling want state and local law enforcement to be able to tap the tax returns of suspected abductors for information that could locate missing children across the country in domestic cases.

"It just defies reality that we would have one branch of the government have information about addresses of missing children, but we have another, local law enforcement, with very limited resources running around trying to find out where these kids are," said Klobuchar, the former Hennepin County attorney. "It makes no sense."

But civil liberties supporters say that eroding the wall between the nation's tax collector and law enforcement is problematic.

"There's a reason the privacy laws around taxes are some of the strongest in our country," said Chris Calabrese, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union. "Once you open the door, other compelling interests will come forward, not necessarily about tax information, but also about health care information or other government services."

Klobuchar was joined at Wednesday's congressional panel hearing by Wetterling, who testified in support of Klobuchar's bill.

"Parents of missing children don't care about jurisdictional boundaries," Wetterling said. "They care about getting their child back."

Wetterling's son Jacob was abducted near their St. Joseph home in 1989 at age 11. He was never found.

Klobuchar said that locating missing children is too important a cause not to use all available resources -- even federal tax returns.

The senator said there are numerous examples of noncustodial parents or other child abductors who changed their own names but used the missing child's Social Security number on tax returns, which could help police track down both missing children and their captors.

Klobuchar noted that some exceptions in the tax code already allow the IRS to disclose data in some situations, such as overdue student loans. Klobuchar said there's no reason missing children shouldn't be added to the list.

'This needs to be fixed'

Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas is a co-sponsor and Klobuchar said that kind of bipartisan support should help the bill pass.

The measure focuses on missing children in domestic cases, which often receive less attention than stranger abductions.

Federal investigators are allowed to ask the courts for tax data in missing children cases, but most cases don't reach the federal level.

Wetterling, who ran for Congress in Minnesota in 2004 and 2006, said the need for giving state and local law enforcement up-to-date information officials should be obvious.

"It's a little bit of a 'duh' factor that this needs to be fixed," Wetterling said. "The only real question is how can we best do that?"

Concerns over privacy

James Keightley, a former IRS attorney specializing in disclosure issues, said tax data concerns stem from the potential for abuse. Strict IRS privacy laws were enacted after Watergate in the 1970s, following several inappropriate uses of tax data, he said.

"We force people to file these tax returns. We force great amounts of information out of them and we need to strike that balance so that people continue to file and have confidence in the confidentiality," said Keightley, who suggested at the hearing that Social Security Administration data might be more beneficial for tracking down addresses.

U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said Congress had to be cautious about setting a precedent that relaxes IRS privacy laws.

"I certainly want to provide all sensible help to law enforcement to find missing children, but even well-meaning proposals can implicate other important values that need to be considered," Grassley said.

Klobuchar acknowledged the need to limit how much tax return data is disclosed, but said she did not have privacy concerns for those who break the law.

"We want to protect the privacy of taxpayer information," Klobuchar said, "but if you abducted a child... you are no longer entitled to that privacy."

Jeremy Herb • 202-408-2723

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