Some federal officials have criticized TRAC's use of data, saying the information was misinterpreted. Johnston says the IRS tried to attack TRAC data used in his Timesstories. "They wrote various obfuscating letters saying the TRAC data are not to be believed. The problem is, it's the IRS's data. They argued that TRAC didn't know how to use the data. When I asked them for specificssuggested we go through item by item to see exactly where it was wrong and what was wrong with itthey were not willing to do that."|
Long says federal prosecutors in Minnesota and Kentucky disputed TRAC data showing that those districts prosecuted some of the lowest percentages of cases referred to them by local police. TRAC had obtained the information from a central database at the U.S. Attorney's Washington office, but district offices apparently had different numbers. "We asked if they could furnish specific details about what was wrong, but they refused," Long says. "We spent several years trying to get voluntary cooperation and sued in early March of this year." Underscoring the difficulty of FOIA lawsuits was the recent revelation that the Western District of Kentucky office destroyed the disputed records six months after Burnham and Long filed an FOIA request.
Long, a statistician, has been active in FOIA issues since graduate school. "My dissertation required a lawsuit against the IRS," she says. "If you want to study an organization, you obviously need access to its data." Since then Long has brought 13 lawsuits against the IRS under FOIA, and won the first ever against the agency for release of statistics on audits. When she came to Syracuse in 1980, she and some colleagues started an information center similar to TRAC, but focusing solely on the IRS.
As an investigative reporter for The New York Times,Burnham had worked with Frank Serpico to uncover corruption in the NYPD and also disclosed improprieties in the National Security Agency. His 1983 book, The Rise of the Computer State,warned that the use of advanced computer technology by business and government bureaucracies threatens representative democracy. While working on A Law Unto Itself,a 1990 book about the power wielded and sometimes misused by the IRS, Burnham contacted Long, who he knew had a wealth of IRS information. "She had all these data tapes, and if you look at the back of my IRS book, you'll see a bunch of tables she created." Burnham and Long realized the information would be more useful if it could be widely distributed, and the idea for TRAC was born.
A joint venture of Newhouse and the School of Management, TRAC is also supported by the Rockefeller Family Fund, The New York Times Company Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and various research grants, contracts, and fees for research services. The center maintains its own computer equipment, largely through the efforts of work-study students and graduate assistants (see related story)
at its offices in Newhouse. Burnham works in TRAC's Washington, D.C., office, close to the source of TRAC's data.
Long says TRAC's basic functions-research, investigation, and identifying and gaining access to important records systems-remain unchanged. But methods for getting those records to the public have come a long way. In the beginning, Long says, data were furnished on computer tapes to a limited audience, mostly scholars, large media organizations, government agencies, and businesses that had the right computer technology. TRAC also published written reports and developed a diskette series, but the cost of developing these materials made them too expensive for most potential clients.