WASHINGTON -- If you have a few choice words for the Internal Revenue Service when your tax return is audited, your IRS officer could have a few choice words for you -- and toss you into a secret listing of "Potentially Dangerous Taxpayers."
In fact, the names of more than 8,800 taxpayers have been placed in the so-called PDT File, designed to track potential threats to the IRS.
Some, like the Bethesda accountant who pleaded guilty in Baltimore last July to conspiring to murder an IRS auditor, may have assaulted or tried to assault IRS agents. Some may have threatened or harassed agents. Others may be members of tax groups advocating violence against the agency.
Although the list initially was set up for internal IRS use, it is being distributed to state and local law-enforcement agencies, a practice that concerns civil liberties groups, since most of those on the list are neither convicted criminals nor defendants in criminal cases.
The file contains the names, addresses and case histories of individuals who have made threats, assaulted, harassed or otherwise attempted "to interfere with the administration of the internal revenue laws," according to Treasury Department rules published in 1984.
Taxpayers on the list have asterisks placed next to their names in their general IRS files. If an IRS agent sees the asterisk and wants information about the incident that landed the taxpayer on the list, he must contact headquarters.
IRS officials said the listing was developed in the 1980s to deal with an increase in harassment, threats and actual assaults against IRS employees -- incidents ranging from the Maryland murder-conspiracy case to last week's launching of 10 pipe bombs at an IRS center in Fresno, Calif. More than 730 incidents of varying severity were reported last year.
Currently, 8,838 taxpayers have been designated as "potentially dangerous," including 171 in the Baltimore-Washington IRS District, according to IRS officials.
The existence of the file has not been common knowledge and its contents are secret -- at least to the public and those who want to know if their names are on the list.
For example, the Privacy and Technology Division of the American Civil Liberties Union, which monitors this kind of operation, was not aware of the PDT File until told about it by a reporter.
"The serious questions this raises are both of privacy, in that people's names are in a file which could have very negative consequences, and of constitutionality, when they haven't committed a crime and they're not even wanted for committing a crime," said Janlori Goldman, who heads the ACLU's privacy and technology division.
Although IRS officials say the PDT file is used internally as a warning system alerting examiners and revenue officers to taxpayers prone to acts of violence, it has actually been made available through a centralized listing to several states -- including Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Indiana, Illinois, Montana, South Carolina and South Dakota, according to an IRS list of databases shared with state agencies.
According to John Schnellmann, public affairs officer at the IRS office in Washington, any state can receive information on PDTs, subject to negotiations with the IRS central office.
But, if a private citizen wants to find out if he or she is on the list, the IRS will most likely withhold that information, especially if the citizen is, in fact, on it.
"Our feeling is that if you know you're a PDT, you're liable to be so hostile that you are going to go out and do violence to an individual," said IRS Internal Security Division Director Douglas C. Crouch. "Before, you may have threatened him [the IRS
agent]; now, you're on his computer database -- and now you're really upset."
Crouch emphasized that citizens are not labeled Potentially Dangerous Taxpayers on a whim. He said there is a careful
screening process that starts with the complaining IRS employee. It generally includes a return visit to the taxpayer in question and moves through district-level coordinator to the regional coordinator.
"We try very hard to make sure that if you're designated a PDT, that you truly deserve that designation," said Crouch, "because I don't think any of us want to wind up on some database some place having that kind of code next to our names."
When asked if the Justice Department or any other computer database cross-references the PDT list, Crouch said the information generally remains within the agency because "that PDT information is associated with you as a taxpayer -- that tax return information remains in the IRS. We do not share that with anybody."
Crouch later admitted, "There are certain times when we're allowed to share -- the Department of Justice can write in to get it. But, for the most part, we guard that information very cautiously."