Guide for Government Employees

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LEN SMIGELSKI: Hi. I´m Len Smigelski. I´m from the IRS, and I´m here to help you. No, really. I am. Because some of the work you do involves using federal tax information, FTI for short, you need to understand the responsibilities the law imposes on you to protect this information. I hope this presentation helps you to learn more about these obligations and how they affect what you do. Public trust and confidence in your agency is very important, just as it is here at the IRS. For us, that trust is a cornerstone of voluntary compliance. If taxpayers can´t comfortably share their private financial and other personal information with us, they´re less likely to be completely forthcoming in their dealings with the IRS. Because we share confidential tax information with your agency, the laws written to safeguard that data apply to you as agency employees. These laws impose serious responsibilities on individuals having access to sensitive information and can result in severe penalties if willfully violated. The work you do may involve access to federal tax information, or FTI, as we call it. Perhaps you work with records protected by the Privacy Act or other sensitive material. Every day, your work with FTI presents you with somewhat of a dilemma. You must simultaneously protect confidential information made available to you while using and disclosing this same information when necessary to do your job. In this video, we´ll review your responsibilities so you can better understand and comply with them. I´m going to take you on an abbreviated tour of the "Protecting Federal Tax Information Pocket Guide," IRS Publication 4761. It´s a handy document designed to assist you in meeting those important obligations. While you won´t need a guide as you view this video, it´s easy to find online at www.IRS.gov. You can order one from the publishing catalog. As a government employee, one of your many obligations is to protect federal tax returns and return information entrusted to you. As an employee of a federal, state, or local government agency who may work with federal tax information, Internal Revenue Code Section 6103 includes a very strict prohibition that forbids you from disclosing tax information unless allowed by statute. Whether you´re an assistant United States attorney or federal agent working with tax data obtained through an ex parte court order, a state agency employee making adjustments to state returns based on results from IRS extracts, or perhaps you work for a state employment security agency in their data-storage facility, you deal with tax returns and information. You may be using a paper copy of a federal tax Form 1099 information return or an electronic copy of a complex consolidated corporate return. Regardless of the size of the return or the media where the return is maintained, you need to understand what´s expected of you when it comes to taking care of federal returns. Return information has a much broader definition in the law and one that you ignore at your peril. Return information, as the pocket guide explains, means information from and about the return, including identifying information obtained from the return, and even fact of filing. Because this information may be found anywhere in the workplace, you have to be very conscientious and deliberate when doing your job. For example, while the need-to-know provisions of the Internal Revenue Code allow you to confer with other employees and disclose return information to understand or resolve a particular tax matter, it´s important to hold those discussions in a secure environment, not in the lobby, the cafeteria, or in the elevator. It´s also very important to note that there must be an underlying business need for the conversation. There´s no need for your co-workers to hear about a matter simply because the taxpayer is famous or wealthy. As we´ve said, it´s important to use FTI solely for official purposes, to properly protect it, and to share it only with those who´ve got a need to know. You need to make the right choices, but not everyone does. Here´s just one example about a state employee who made the wrong choice repeatedly. In 2008, from March to July, a state tax agency employee, without authorization or a business need, electronically accessed the confidential tax records of 42 people. These crimes were knowingly and willfully committed. They were acts that intentionally breached the privacy of the victims. Data losses, security breaches, identity theft, and cyber attacks make the headlines. In a business like ours, we can´t afford to make mistakes with what can be argued is our most important resource -- the confidential and very personal data we hold in the public trust. The moral of this tale is don´t disclose, not even to yourself. Remember, we hold the public´s trust and confidence, and we can´t let them down. So be careful with all sensitive data available to you. The overwhelming majority of government employees take their obligation to protect and safeguard the sensitive information in their care very seriously. Unfortunately, a few do not, and this unfortunate situation repeats year after year. Whether motivated by money, feelings, or simply tempted by mere opportunity, some individuals decide to knowingly and willfully access or disclose returns and return information which they do not have a need to know. That decision can be costly. The penalties are both serious and severe, as the pocket guide describes. Willful unauthorized disclosure is a crime, a felony for which the punishment can include fines, imprisonment, and the cost of prosecution. The fines for unauthorized access to FTI, or UNAX, are also heavy. The law also says that the injured party can sue for civil damages in court. Remember that these penalties apply where the wrongful disclosure or access is intentional. They do not apply when an employee makes a mistake. We´re only human, and mistakes sometimes occur. But because we work with sensitive information and bear the weight of public trust and public scrutiny, we need to be vigilant. The pocket guide has a list of prevention tips that will help you to avoid the most common reported errors. The guide also tells you what you should do to report both intentional and inadvertent unauthorized disclosures. I want you to know that you can contact the IRS with questions about any particular disclosure situation. Simply type in the search term "IRS Disclosure Offices" on our IRS.gov Website for contact information. In closing, I´ll leave you with this great advice from our pocket guide. "When in doubt, check it out before you give it out."