In a precedent that could help pry open a wealth of information about nonprofit activities, the federal government has turned over nine nonprofit tax forms in a format that computers can read — resolving a court battle waged by open-records activist Carl Malamud.
A U.S. federal judge in January ordered the Internal Revenue Service to release the Forms 990 within 60 days, but the agency appealed the decision in March. However, the Justice Department, which represents the IRS, sent the documents to Mr. Malamud on Friday and told the court Monday it was dropping the appeal.
Mr. Malamud said this was just the opening step of his effort to get the IRS to make all Forms 990 that are filed electronically available in machine-readable format so people can conduct digital searches for information about nonprofit finances, trustees, lobbying activities, or salaries.
"My first hope is that we simply talk about it with the IRS," he said, "and they say, Gee, okay, it’s an important thing getting a database out the door." He said he had already written to the Treasury Department, which houses the IRS, requesting a meeting.
However, if the agency is unresponsive, he said he will work to file Freedom of Information Act requests for other documents, probably with media outlets since they are exempt from some fees for such requests.
The IRS now strips nonprofit tax filings of confidential information and converts them to image files, even those that have been filed electronically. It originally argued that producing the documents requested by Mr. Malamud would create a significant burden on an overstretched agency, which would have to train people how to remove the confidential information in the new format.
A Treasury Department spokeswoman said the agency had no comment on the case.