A federal judge in California’s Northern District last week turned down a motion by the Internal Revenue Service to dismiss a lawsuit brought by an advocacy group to make charities’ tax forms easier to search.
The case has deep implications for transparency in the nonprofit sector.
Charities file Form 990 to inform the IRS about their revenue, expenses, programs, salaries and governance issues.
The advocacy group, Public.Resource.org, which aims to make government documents more accessible, sued to force the IRS to release Form 990s in a searchable electronic format, rather than as image files, which it says are hard to search.
The Chronicle of Philanthropy reported that the judge had rejected the IRS’ contention that Internal Revenue Code provisions governing the release of the forms, which are designed to protect confidentiality, supersede the Freedom of Information Act.
The FOIA says that federal agencies must provide records “in any form or format requested” if it is “readily producible” in that format.
Public.Resource.org had asked for specific tax forms of nine nonprofits that had been filed electronically.
The IRS said it wanted to continue releasing the forms as image files because it would be technically hard to change its process for removing confidential information, such as lists of donors.
The judge had signaled in an earlier hearing that he would deny the agency’s motion, The Chronicle reported.
Transparency for Nonprofit Operations