One has to wonder if the House Ways and Means Committee’s subcommittee on oversight got it right when it told reporters that it could not legally release the names of the companies who received bailout money while owing back taxes, two of which owe more than $100 million each. (See Associated Press article, “Some Getting Bailout Cash Owe Millions In Back Taxes,” in the New York Times on 3/20/2009 A19 col. 6.)

Ordinarily, a taxpayer’s tax information, whether it is an individual or a business, is treated as very private, very secret. In fact, IRS employees can be, and are, fired, criminally charged, convicted, and sentenced for the Unauthorized Inspection of Tax Return Information or Accessing of Tax Account Information.

But, when a taxpayer is late in paying a tax bill, these super-strong privacy rules don’t fully apply anymore.

One of the several extraordinarily powerful tools at the IRS’s disposal for protecting its claim on unpaid taxes and ultimately compelling payment, even from the most unwilling and uncooperative of debtors, is to publicly file a Notice of Federal Tax Lien.

Notices of Federal Tax Lien are filed with public recording authorities – where deeds, liens and UCC documents are filed – all over the country. In many places, that recording authority is the county clerk. In New York City it is the office of the City Register.

Once a Notice of Federal Tax Lien is filed, the unpaid tax debt becomes public information. Anyone can know that a taxpayer has an IRS back tax debt claim against him or her, or, in the case of companies owing north of $100 Million, it. Also, the previously confidential debt shows up on credit reports and public record searches.

And the IRS is not shy about using this tool: it files lots of Notices of Federal Tax Lien. For example, in the last 30 days, in Manhattan alone, the IRS filed 601. The filings for all five boroughs were almost 1900. Based on this, in New York City, the IRS files an average of 89 liens every business day.

While the IRS’s internal procedures manual suggests filing a lien when the past due tax reaches $5,000 or more, the IRS will sometimes file liens on amounts due which are much smaller. Just a month ago, in mid-February, the IRS filed a Notice of Federal Tax Lien against a taxpayer where the past due amount owed is $41.06. This tax was assessed only four months earlier, in October, 2008.

You, me, anyone can now know all about this taxpayer who owes $41.06: that it is a company not a person, its name, its street address (in midtown Manhattan), when the tax debt was assessed and when the lien was filed.

Do you think the IRS might have exercised the same power to publicly file a lien on a $100 million debt, since it did not hesitate to do so on a debt of $41.06?

On the other end of the spectrum, public filings allow us to know that Tiffany and Company – yes, the blue box, “Breakfast at” and Audrey Hepburn people – had a $3,723,680.76 federal tax lien filed against it in August, 2008, and that the lien was released three months later, in November 2008.

If the IRS exercised its discretion to publicly file a Notice of Federal Tax Lien on these bailed-out $100 Million tax debtors, then the House Subcommittee’s position that it is legally barred from revealing their identities is mistaken – the horse is already out of the barn, as President Obama recently said. (Unless the TARP bill or other legislation created some new and additional tax debtor privacy provision, though this seems unlikely, and would be difficult to square with pre-existing public records.)

Considering the size of the tax debts involved here (well over $41.06; well over $5,000), it would seem, without knowing more, that the IRS would likely be quick to file Notices of Federal Tax Lien to help secure it’s interest in collecting these hundreds of millions in unpaid tax. (“Woulda-coulda-shoulda” as Hillary Clinton said, in a different context, a decade ago.)

So, the questions now should be:

  • Did the IRS file Notices of Federal Tax Lien on these tax debtor companies which received bailout cash?
  • If yes, what law prevents the House subcommittee from releasing these companies’ names? (Probably no law.)
  • And, if no law prevents the releasing of these names, how about telling us, in another bold stroke toward “transparency”?
  • Finally, if the IRS has opted not to file Notices of Federal Tax Lien on these companies, why not?