WASHINGTON — An Internal Revenue Service official has filed a whistle-blower complaint reporting that he was told at least one Treasury Department political appointee attempted to improperly interfere with the annual audit of the president or vice president’s tax returns, according to multiple people familiar with the document.
Trump administration officials dismissed the whistle-blower’s complaint as flimsy because it is based on conversations with other government officials. But congressional Democrats were alarmed by the complaint, now circulating on Capitol Hill, and flagged it to a federal judge. They are also discussing whether to make it public.
The complaint has come amid the escalating legal battle between the Treasury Department and House Democrats over the release of President Trump’s tax returns. Part of that inquiry from Democrats is over how the IRS conducts its annual audit of the president and vice president’s tax returns. That process is supposed to be walled off from political appointees and interference.
The existence of a whistle-blower complaint was revealed in a court filing several months ago, but little about it has become public. It has not been revealed previously that the complaint pertained to allegations of interference in the audit process by at least one Treasury Department official. It has also not been previously revealed that the whistle-blower is a career IRS official.
The whistle-blower’s account focuses on the integrity of the government’s system for auditing the president and vice president’s tax returns.
Trump has broken decades of precedent by refusing to publicly release his tax returns. Democrats filed a lawsuit earlier this year demanding the disclosure of those filings, invoking a federal law designed to give Congress access to any tax return.
The details of the IRS complaint follow news of a separate, explosive whistle-blower complaint filed in August by a member of the intelligence community. That complaint revealed Trump’s request of Ukranian leaders to investigate former vice president Joe Biden, a political rival. It has spurred an impeachment probe on Capitol Hill.
The IRS complaint has received less attention but has divided government officials.
Two administration officials have described the complaint as hearsay and suggested it was politically motivated, but they spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. Democrats who have reviewed it regard it as a deeply significant allegation that, if true, suggests that political appointees may have tried to interfere with the government audit process, which was set up to be insulated from political pressures.
Key parts of the complaint remain under wraps in part because of strict privacy laws that prevent the disclosure of any details related to the filing of tax returns.
People who described the complaint spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Rep. Richard Neal, D-Mass., the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee who received the whistle-blower’s complaint in July, said in court filings this summer that the complaint contains credible evidence of ‘‘potential ‘inappropriate efforts to influence’ the audit program.’’ Neal has also said the complaint raises ‘‘serious and urgent concerns.’’
The whistle-blower, a career official at the IRS, confirmed in an interview with The Washington Post this week that he had filed a formal complaint and sent it to the tax committee chairs in both houses of Congress, including Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and to the Treasury Department Inspector General for Tax Administration on July 29.
The whistle-blower would not comment on the substance of the complaint itself but focused on the importance of protecting those who come forward to disclose problems in government.
Trump has closely guarded any details of his tax returns, refusing to release them during his presidential campaign and throughout his presidency. He has given a variety of reasons for refusing to release the returns, often saying they are under audit and therefore should remain private. Vice President Pence also has not made public any of his recent tax returns.
Neal has not revealed whether the whistle-blower complaint is about Trump or Pence, but he said in an August court filing that the allegations ‘‘cast doubt’’ on the Trump administration’s contention that there is no reason for concern that IRS employees could face interference when auditing a president’s tax returns.
It is very unusual for political appointees at Treasury to ask IRS career staff about the status of an individual’s audit, according to legal experts and former IRS officials.
‘‘Nobody at the Treasury Department should be calling to find out the status of anybody’s audit,’’ said John Koskinen, who served as IRS commissioner under both Trump and President Barack Obama. ‘‘For a Treasury official to call a career person - even just for information - seems to me highly inappropriate, even if it’s just checking in on how it’s going.’’
The Post has been unable to verify the allegation in the whistle-blower’s complaint of improper communication between Treasury and IRS on the tax audit program.
A spokesman for the Treasury Department did not comment on details of the complaint. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin previously told Neal he forwarded the complaint to the inspector general’s office.
A spokesman for Neal refused to share any details about the substance of the complaint, citing taxpayer protection rules. Michael Zona, a spokesman for Grassley, also declined to comment, saying the senator does not discuss such confidential complaints.
James Jackson, a deputy inspector general at the Treasury Department, said in September when asked about the whistle-blower complaint at a congressional hearing: ‘‘We can’t confirm or deny that we may or may not be doing anything. I can tell you, though, that anytime we get any kind of allegation in this world, in this realm, we investigate it aggressively.’’
Jackson added: ‘‘We are not aware of any misconduct.’’
In his interview with The Post, the whistle-blower dismissed the contention of critics that the complaint was uncorroborated.
‘‘That’s what investigations are for,’’ he said.
He also denied his action was politically motivated.
‘‘Anyone who knows me knows I would not hesitate to do the same, as would most career IRS public servants, regardless of any political preference,’’ he said. ‘‘I take very seriously the duty of career civil servants to act with integrity and perform our duties impartially, even at the risk that someone will make a charge of bias.’’
The whistle-blower also castigated public officials who he said were making federal employees fearful of reporting wrongdoing. Trump has in recent days said he wants to know the identity of the whistle-blower in the Ukraine case.
‘‘I steadfastly refuse to discuss the substance or details of the complaint, but I have some legitimate concerns about reckless statements being made about whistle-blowers,’’ he said. He said such statements ‘‘attack the messenger when the focus should be on the facts that were presented. I am concerned also by the relative silence of people who should be repudiating these dangerous attacks in the strongest terms.’’
Neal told Bloomberg he is consulting with legal counsel about whether to release the whistle-blower complaint.
The chairman has ‘‘been almost entirely silent about the whole matter’’ related to the whistle-blower in private meetings of the Democrats on the Ways and Means Committee, according to one lawmaker who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
Legal experts and former government officials expressed alarm at the prospect of interference from political appointees with audits conducted by career IRS staff.
The tax returns of the president and vice president must be kept ‘‘at all times’’ in an orange folder and locked in a secure drawer or cabinet when the appointed IRS examiner is not with the documents, according to the IRS’s manual.
‘‘It’s very important that enforcement matters, including audits, be handled independently by the IRS,’’ said Mark Everson, who served as IRS commissioner under President George W. Bush.
The mandatory audit program refers only to the audit of the president and vice president, said Mark Matthews, who was a deputy IRS commissioner under Bush and is now a partner at the firm Caplin & Drysdale. Those audits are viewed only by a small number of senior career IRS staff, Matthews said.
The president’s tax returns have already produced divisions between political appointees in the Treasury Department and officials at the IRS. In May, The Post obtained a 10-page memo written by an attorney in the IRS Office of Legal Counsel finding the administration had to turn over a president’s returns if requested by Congress, unless the president invokes executive privilege. The Treasury Department has denied Congress’s request for the returns, but the White House has not invoked executive privilege.
In April, Treasury Secretary Mnuchin also revealed department attorneys consulted with the White House general counsel’s office about the potential release of Trump’s tax returns before they were formally requested by House Democrats.
Mnuchin, who said he was not involved in those conversations, said the communication between Treasury and White House attorneys was ‘‘informational’’ and that Treasury officials did not ask the White House for permission about whether to release the returns.
The whistle-blower said that Treasury investigators, and presumably the inspector general, were aware of his complaint. ‘‘I brought my concerns to my supervisors, who advised me to report the matter to the appropriate people with investigatory authority,’’ he told The Post.
David Barnes, a spokesman for the Treasury inspector general, declined to comment.
The whistle-blower complaint was first disclosed by Neal as part of his lawsuit against the Trump administration seeking six years of the president’s tax returns, which the administration refused to turn over despite a 1924 law explicitly giving Congress the authority to obtain them.
Neal told a federal court this summer that House Democrats had received an unsolicited message from a federal employee ‘‘setting forth credible allegations of ‘evidence of possible misconduct’ - specifically, potential ‘inappropriate efforts to influence’ the mandatory audit program.’’