WASHINGTON (CN) – Unless President Trump or Congress authorizes the release of his personal tax returns, the American public will remain in the dark about what’s in them, a federal judge ruled Friday.
In a 20-page opinion U.S. District Judge James Boasberg said the court lacks the authority to order the IRS to release the highly sought after filings.
In February, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, or EPIC, filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the IRS, seeking Trump’s tax returns since 2010, and other information that would show any financial relations to Russian businesses or officials.
EPIC had argued that the IRS has the authority to release the returns to clear up statements Trump has made about his lack of financial dealings with Russia.
EPIC had pointed to several instances of such statements, including one Trump had made emphatically via tweet: “For the record I have ZERO investments in Russia. Russia has never tried to use leverage over me. I HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH RUSSIA – NO DEALS, NO LOANS, NO NOTHING!”
Boasberg did not agree that a provision of the internal revenue code would allow the IRS to disclose the tax returns in this instance. The exception allows for narrow disclosure to the president, congressional committees, federal agencies and state tax officials, but not necessarily to the public.
“Exceedingly few exceptions, however, contemplate disclosure to the public writ large,” the August 18 ruling states. “The Court, in fact, is aware of no instance where it has been successfully invoked, either in the FOIA context or otherwise,” the opinion continues.
During the campaign then-candidate Trump said he would release his returns at some point, but later said he couldn’t do it because he was under audit. After promising to release them upon the audit’s completion, Trump pivoted again after the election and said he wouldn’t release them after all.
EPIC had argued that ongoing congressional investigations, public interest, a long tradition of U.S. presidents releasing their tax returns and concern over Trump’s potential financial dealings with Russia weighed heavily in support of releasing the returns.
While most presidential candidates have released their tax returns, they are not obligated to do so. And while a large portion of Americans would like to see them, including EPIC, Boasberg finds that the group does not have the legal right to “peer into another person’s income-tax records.”
According to Boasberg, EPIC had failed to file a proper FOIA request, which the IRS used as a basis to ask the court to throw the lawsuit out. According to IRS regulations, anyone seeking the release of tax returns through the FOIA must “submit proof of third-party consent” with the request.
“These are not mere formalities to be routinely ignored, some unseemly morass of bureaucratic red tape,” the ruling states.
“Requiring consent as part of the initial request is the IRS’s way of separating chaff from wheat. Absent this proof, a FOIA request for confidential third party return information is incomplete, exhaustion is wanting, and litigation is premature,” it continues.
The only way for EPIC to compel the IRS to release Trump’s tax returns is to get the president himself or Congress’s Joint Committee on Taxation to authorize their disclosure.
“Although the Court has no reason to doubt EPIC’s assertion that the return information on this particular individual — President Trump — would be of interest to the public, that fact does not give the organization a viable legal case,” Boasberg wrote.
The Electronic Privacy Information Center did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment on the ruling.
A representative of the IRS declined to comment.