After critiques of free tax filing services, law professor subject to hefty public records request

After critiques of free tax filing services, law professor subject to hefty public records request

CPRA request yielded 1,100 pages of documents

Dennis Ventry Jr., a UC Davis law professor, faced a hefty public records request from a law firm days after his criticisms of free tax filing services.

Free tax filing services, like H&R Block, Intuit and TurboTax, provide free online filing services to their customers.

Ventry serves as chairman of the Internal Revenue Services (IRS) Advisory Council, a public forum of voluntary members who, according to the IRS website, “conveys the public’s perception of IRS’ activities and, plays a significant role as external evaluator regarding the reorganization and its implementation.” In January, the IRS tasked the council with investigating the IRS’ Free File Program (FFP), a partnership launched in 2002 between the IRS and private tax filing companies.

“They asked us to specifically investigate or see whether or not the IRS Free File Program has been fulfilling its mission to provide free e-filing services for federal returns to low and middle income taxpayers,” Ventry said.

In April 2018, the House of Representatives passed the Taxpayer First Act, which included a provision to make the FFP a permanent facet of the IRS.

In a 20 page memo, Ventry relayed criticisms to the IRS on the private companies under the FFP — collectively called the Free File Alliance.

In an op-ed article published to The Hill and in a co-written article published in Politico, Ventry discouraged the provision in the The Taxpayer First Act and articulated faults he found within free filing services.

Ventry said companies under the program engaged in upselling their customers — the act of sellers convincing their buyers to buy greater priced services or products. According to Ventry, upselling in this case would include charging tax filers if their federal return didn’t meet the companies’ standards or offering them “value added products that the taxpayer just didn’t need.”

On July 20, law firm Conkle, Kremer & Engel emailed a California Public Records Act (CPRA) request to UC Davis Campus Counsel directed to Ventry. The office subsequently made Ventry aware he was under request.

The law firm’s request, made available to The California Aggie, asked for copies in possession by UC Davis and professor Ventry, “concerning the subject matter of his July 6, 2018, opinion article published in The Hill […] and his July 17, 2018, opinion article published in Politico.”

“Subject matter” was specified to mean any email correspondence the professor had over his university assigned phone or computer in reference to The Taxpayer First Act, the Free File Program or any member of the Free File Alliance which would include individual free filing companies.

Campus Counsel provided the requester with roughly 1,100 pages of documents considered “responsive” to the demands articulated. It took nine weeks to comply with the request.

“Once we determined what the subject matter is, I reached out to professor Ventry and asked him […] to do a search of his email and his paper files and give us everything that is responsive,” said Astrid Davis, the campus counsel legal analyst assigned to the request.

No reasoning was given for the request, as under the CPRA none is required.

“They don’t even have to identify themselves,” Davis said. “We can take a request from any member of the public.”

Ventry articulated the consequences the request has had on his communication with colleagues regarding his work on tax policy. He has limited email communication for work purposes, instead opting for phone calls.

“The first thing I did was reach out to folks who might be implicated,” Ventry said. “And it’s not because we think we’re doing anything wrong — I could take your emails that are perfectly benign and pull out a whole bunch of stuff and weave a narrative.”

As a public institution, UC Davis falls under the provision of the CPRA. The act allows any individual to request documents from any department or faculty member.

In 2017, UC Davis received 1,673 requests that fell under the CPRA, a 281 percent increase compared to 2009, when UC Davis received 439 requests.

“I think that there’s a bit of a misconception about the university and that we can have IT [Information Technology] go and pull any record immediately for us or that we can open the file cabinet and there’s the record that someone is looking for,” said Jana Gabby, campus counsel legal analyst.  

Since Campus Counsel’s submission of documents, there has been no response or follow up from the requester.

Written by: Elizabeth Mercado — campus@theaggie.org