Senate panel calls on IRS to end ‘browsing’ in ranks

A Senate committee Wednesday expressed outrage over allegations that Internal Revenue Service employees have been snooping through the computerized tax returns of friends, relatives and celebrities.

A recent IRS internal audit uncovered the unauthorized “browsing” and has prompted the agency to investigate more than 350 employees.

The probe focused on the IRS regional office in Atlanta, where 154 agency employees have been disciplined.

Snooping subject

IRS snooping was the subject of Wednesday’s hearing before the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, where chairman John Glenn (D-Ohio) said the practice of “computer voyeurism” must be stopped.

“The integrity of the tax system depends on an Internal Revenue Service that is beyond reproach,” said Glenn, “and all suspicions of fraud and abuse must be completely and thoroughly investigated.”

IRS commissioner Margaret Richardson told lawmakers that new computer software is being installed to better track whether employees are conducting unauthorized searches of tax records.

A warning issued

Internal Revenue Service spokesman Don Roberts said employees are being warned that “looking (at private tax information) just for the sake of looking is inappropriate” and can result in disciplinary action or firing.

Roberts said the IRS is barred by law from revealing the identities of celebrities whose tax returns were scrutinized. Roberts added, however, that “most of the access was to the files of friends and families” of the IRS employees. The celebrity end was a small portion of the total.

Seeking targets

Sen. David Pryor (D-Ark.) urged the IRS to notify those taxpayers who were targets of the “browsing.” He said the snooping “confirms the worst fears that America has about the IRS.”

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