In the fall of 1969 the Internal Revenue Service initiated an audit of Phil Long. In March 1970 the IRS notified him of 33 claims against him for a total of $38,000. An independent auditor told Phil the claims were the most ridiculous he had seen in 40 years of accounting, so he and the woman shortly to become Susan Long decided to take on the country's tax bureaucracy.
They immediately placed the first of 14 ads in the Washington Post detailing their experiences with the government. They made an administrative request under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) for the handbook used by IRS agents. Before they ever obtained it, Phil Long had won his own tax case, even receiving a refund of $146. But the Longs had started down a road that neither one of them ever meant to travel. They pursued the FOIA request and took up new battles, and now they have become celebrities for their attempts to publicize the workings of the largest financial agency in the country.
Their latest effort is to acquire 58 computer tapes of data generated under the IRS's Taxpayer Compliance Measurement Program (TCMP), a comprehensive study of who pays what in American society. The data collection has been going on since 1962 and, according to the Longs, has cost at least $100-$150 million. For some reason, the IRS does not want the TCMP information made public. As a matter of fact, the agency has fought the Longs about practically every bit of information they have tried to bring into the light of day.
The Longs first made an FOIA request for the TCMP information, including tapes, in 1970, only to find out that Congress itself had been refused the data. After five years of struggle and delays the Longs filed suit against the IRS in the Seattle Federal Court, near their home in Bellevue. The IRS told the court that it would be impossible to supply the tapes because taxpayers' Social Security numbers would be released in the process, violating legal injunctions against the invasion of privacy. Furthermore, they told the court, the cost of deleting the identifiers would overburden the IRS.
The court decided that the Longs had a right to some IRS statistics based on the tapes but not to the tapes themselves. They appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court. In the meantime, they unearthed evidence not only that the tapes they sought were financially feasible to generate but that they had already been produced for the Commerce Department's Bureau of Economic Analysis. In fact, they were being prepared while the IRS was lying about the impossibility of it in court. The Longs changed their tack and filed another suit in federal court for the tapes already provided to the BEA.
In 1980 the court ruled in the Longs' favor on the BEA case. The government filed for reconsideration. The privacy argument no longer workable, the IRS came up with a new reason for not releasing the tapes: if surrendered, the tapes would provide the code that the IRS uses to select tax returns for audit. When the court refused to reconsider, the IRS appealed to the Supreme Court, which denied a hearing.
On December 31, 1980, the Longs obtained a court order that the tapes be turned over to them. This time the BEA asked for a reconsideration, arguing that the tapes would permit the public to break the IRS audit code. The court rejected the government's arguments as late and frivolous.
When a friend of the Longs' went to the BEA in Washington, D.C., in February 1981 to pick up the tapes, he was, according to Sue Long, screamed at and thrown out of the building. After the federal court granted the BEA a temporary stay of its order, the Ninth Circuit Court dissolved the stay, the Supreme Court issued and then dissolved a stay, and in March 1981 Sue Long presented the court order to the US marshall and asked that the documents be seized. The marshall's office refused, saying that they hadn't seen anything like this since Watergate.
The Supreme Court scratched its collective head and issued another stay, remanding the case to the Ninth Circuit Court. So far the Longs' attorneys—Rendich, Stobaugh, and Strong—have put in close to $200,000 worth of work without compensation.
What kind of people would take on the IRS like this, and why would they do it? The why is hard for the Longs to answer. Phil says that it was initially "self-defense" but after that it was just continuing with what had been started. Sue says that it was "ignorance" that kept them going even though they had won their original case. "I didn't know what we were getting into." Today, the two are considered by many the country's foremost experts on IRS operations.
Phil, 64, has been in business for most of his life. Sue, 34, was once a community organizer and now holds a Ph.D. in sociology. "Phil gets the Republican literature," according to his wife, but "the only time I ever voted Republican is when he ran for lieutenant Governor in Washington." Mr. Long spent $1,000 and took 400,000 votes in his race against a Democratic fixture in Washington, a contest he entered in order to beef up his credentials in his fight to open up the IRS. Both of the Longs have testified before Congress on a number of IRS-related issues. They were involved in legislative battles to do away with quotas for IRS agents and to reform the use of "jeopardy assessments."
In his own $38,000 suit, Phil Long was told by an IRS man when he asked to have his case taken to court, "Do you know what the jeopardy assessment is? Well you just better find out!" The Longs found out that it is the procedure whereby the IRS confiscates a person's property after only a 24-hour notice to pay up on IRS claims. The reform that the Longs worked for has brought the number of jeopardy assessments from over 1,000 a year to about 100. Phil Long told REASON that "they were applying it like a club; it was very vicious."
The Longs have uncovered a plethora of astounding facts about the IRS. They obtained a 110-page manual for local agents on dealing with the media (one technique: lying about the legal ramifications of running a tax-related story). They have a confidential IRS memorandum that instructs agents within the Congressional Liaison Service to take letters of complaint from the legislators' constituents under the guise of answering the letters, so there will be no permanent record of the complaint. The Longs have lobbied on their own to get the legislators to pass on only duplicates of complaints. Sue Long, who has served on the Washington State ACLU board, says: "There are laws against citizens' lying to the government. I think the reverse should be true, but when you're the government, you've got a different set of rules."
One of the Longs' other projects is digging out information about the IRS's new, $600-million computer system. The system is scheduled to be finished in 1984, "which is kind of symbolic," Phil Long notes. "There must be information on it somewhere. It would make interesting reading. We're not saying it is a bad thing—we just think the American people have a right to know about it.…If people fear and dread a major branch of our government, shouldn't it be out in the open?"
Patrick Cox is a free-lance writer. He has a B.A. in economics.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Spotlight: Internal Revenue Reformers".