WASHINGTON -- Federal Treasury officials looking at missing children cases and tax returns found something odd: Of the more than 1,700 cases they examined, more than a third of the children had been declared on tax returns by relatives suspected of abducting them.
Now Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and missing children's advocate Patty Wetterling want state and local law enforcement to be able to tap the tax returns of suspected abductors for information that could locate missing children across the country in domestic cases.
"It just defies reality that we would have one branch of the government have information about addresses of missing children, but we have another, local law enforcement, with very limited resources running around trying to find out where these kids are," said Klobuchar, the former Hennepin County attorney. "It makes no sense."
But civil liberties supporters say that eroding the wall between the nation's tax collector and law enforcement is problematic.
"There's a reason the privacy laws around taxes are some of the strongest in our country," said Chris Calabrese, American Civil Liberties Union legislative counsel. "Once you open the door, other compelling interests will come forward, not necessarily about tax information, but also about health care information or other government services."
Joining Klobuchar at Wednesday's congressional panel hearing was Wetterling, who testified in support of Klobuchar's bill. Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas is a co-sponsor of the measure.
"Parents of missing children don't care about jurisdictional boundaries," Wetterling said. "They care about getting their child back."
Wetterling's son Jacob was abducted near their home in St. Joseph, Minn., in 1989 at age 11. He was never found.
Klobuchar said there are numerous examples of noncustodial parents or other child abductors who changed their own names but used the missing child's Social Security number on tax returns, which could help police track down both missing children and their captors.
Klobuchar noted exceptions in the tax code already allow the IRS to disclose data in some situations, such as overdue student loans.
Federal investigators are allowed to ask the courts for tax data in missing children cases, but most cases don't reach the federal level.
Wetterling, who ran for Congress in Minnesota in 2004 and 2006, said the need for giving state and local law enforcement current information should be obvious: "The only real question is how can we best do that?"
James Keightley, a former IRS attorney specializing in disclosure issues, said tax data concerns stem from the potential for abuse. Strict IRS privacy laws were enacted after Watergate in the 1970s, following several inappropriate uses of tax data, he said.
"We force people to file these tax returns. We force great amounts of information out of them and we need to strike that balance so that people continue to file and have confidence in the confidentiality," said Keightley, who suggested at the hearing that Social Security Administration data might be more beneficial for tracking down addresses.
U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said Congress had to be cautious about setting a precedent that relaxes IRS privacy laws.
"I certainly want to provide all sensible help to law enforcement to find missing children, but even well-meaning proposals can implicate other important values," Grassley said.
"We want to protect the privacy of taxpayer information," Klobuchar said, "but if you abducted a child... you are no longer entitled to that privacy."
(Contact Jeremy Herb at Jeremy.herb(at)startribune.com.)
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com.)