IRS Still Has Tax Snoops -- Workers Fired, Disciplined For Peeking At Friends', Celebrities' Records

WASHINGTON - The Internal Revenue Service fired 23 employees, disciplined 349 and counseled 472 after agency audits found that government computers were still being used to browse tax records of friends, relatives and celebrities.

A document, released yesterday and covering fiscal 1994 and 1995, listed 1,515 cases where employees were accused of misusing computers. After accounting for the employees who were fired, disciplined or counseled, 33 percent of the cases were closed without any action, and the remaining 12 percent of accused employees took retirement or were cleared.

Yesterday's disclosure, made by Sen. John Glenn, D-Ohio, marked the second time that IRS employees have been faulted for peeking at tax records. A probe in 1993 and 1994 turned up more than 1,300 employees suspected of using government computers to browse tax files. At the time, the IRS promised "zero tolerance" for such snooping.

But the new data indicate the problem has continued. "I don't know what kind of new math they are using, but that doesn't sound like zero tolerance to me," Glenn said.

Government employees face criminal penalties for misuse of computer databases. But loopholes have thwarted prosecution of some IRS employees who snooped in files but did not disclose the information to others. Glenn and other lawmakers, including House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Archer, R-Texas, have proposed legislation this year to tighten the loopholes.

An expansive anti-browsing bill also has been introduced by Sen. Paul Coverdell, R-Ga., and Washington's Rep. Jennifer Dunn, R-Bellevue.

David Mader, the IRS chief for management, said "browsing is not widespread" at the 102,000-employee agency, but stressed that curious employees must understand that even one unauthorized peek in files undercuts the IRS goal of fair and confidential tax administration. The IRS supports efforts to tighten laws, he said.

The disclosure of snooping comes at a time when privacy advocates are increasingly worried about the government's growing dependence on computers and information technology.

The watchdog Government Accounting Office, for example, has issued more than 30 reports in the past four years describing how government systems are vulnerable to "hackers" and even federal employees who want to change data, commit fraud or disrupt an agency's operations.

The IRS handles more than 200 million taxpayer returns each year at 10 primary centers. After the returns are processed, the data are electronically transmitted to a central computer site, where master files on each taxpayer are maintained and updated.

The IRS developed software to monitor the electronic trail left by employees as they call up tax returns and files on their computer screens.

The program also signals managers when an employee's work pattern or use of command codes appears at odds with the tasks assigned. The audit trail covered about 58,000 employees who use main IRS computer system.

The IRS internal audit document said, "Some employees, when confronted, indicate they browsed because they do not believe it is wrong and that there will be little or no consequence to them if they are caught."

Material from Associated Press is included in this report.