Tax Analysts Blog

Censorship in New Hampshire?

Posted on Jul 2, 2014

In this week’s edition of State Tax Notes, I wrote about a disturbing situation in New Hampshire. In January 2014 William Hoke, the editor of a subscription-based website that provides news and information about taxes administered by the New Hampshire Department of Revenue Administration (DRA), received a letter from the New Hampshire attorney general’s office. The letter threatened court action if Hoke did not provide access to his website, New Hampshire Tax Advantage (NHTA), within two weeks. The AG’s letter was requested by the DRA, which was apparently concerned that Hoke’s website disclosed its “confidential proprietary information and/or confidential taxpayer information.”

Hoke is familiar with operations at the DRA. Although he spent the early part of his career as a reporter and bureau chief for Dow Jones, he was most recently an audit manager at the DRA. He left in May 2010 because of legislatively mandated, seniority-based layoffs. Facing unemployment, he combined his tax and journalism experience to develop a subscription-based website that offered in-depth information on New Hampshire’s tax system. Unfortunately, Hoke’s efforts to get the website, and thus his business, off the ground have been stymied by the DRA, which is attempting to dictate what information can and cannot be on NHTA.

Hoke eventually gave the DRA one-month access to the website to allow it to conduct a review. Hoke assumed he had nothing to worry about because there was no confidential taxpayer information on the website, and all other information was derived from publicly available data. The DRA looked at hundreds of pages on the website. While the DRA found no disclosures of confidential taxpayer information, it determined that seven pages contained information that is confidential and proprietary to the DRA under RSA 21-J:14. The department requested that the information from those pages be removed from the NHTA website.

Hoke is concerned about the allegations being made by the DRA, and rightly so. Every violation of RSA 21-J:14, the statute providing for the confidentiality of the department’s records, carries criminal penalties. But the department’s arguments are on shaky ground. The information the DRA is attempting to hide is nothing more than a general discussion of the agency’s practices and procedures. It is unclear what attracted the DRA’s attention in the first place but clear that the DRA will continue until it has full access to Hoke’s website and the ability to control what information it contains.

It is also clear that none of the pages on the NHTA website contain information that is confidential and proprietary to the department. The statute the department is hiding behind, RSA 21-J:14 , provides: “Notwithstanding any other provision of law, and except as otherwise provided in this chapter, the records and files of the department are confidential and privileged.” The statute’s purpose is to maintain the confidentiality of documents in the DRA’s control and that of taxpayer information.

Also, information on the general practices and procedures of the DRA is not proprietary. Withholding information about how the New Hampshire tax system works does not give the DRA any competitive advantage – it has no competitors – and it is unnecessary for the success of the department. In fact, actively working to prevent taxpayers from understanding how the tax system works hurts the department.

The DRA has gone so far as to declare that it is opposed to the entire website and that it “has some concerns about the editors modifying the NHTA website going forward and the Department’s ability to monitor the site in the future.” The DRA can be opposed to the website all it wants. That does not give it the right to monitor it or demand modifications to its content. Yet the DRA is going one step further. It is attempting not only to prohibit the use and publication of information about its general policies, but to impose criminal penalties on the publication of truthful information about a matter of public concern.

Read Comments (1)

Charles ChongoJul 8, 2014

"Piggies"

Have you seen the little piggies
Crawling in the dirt?
And for all the little piggies
Life is getting worse
Always having dirt to play around in

Have you seen the bigger piggies
In their starched white shirts?
You will find the bigger piggies
Stirring up the dirt
Always have clean shirts to play around in

In their styes with all their backing
They don't care what goes on around
In their eyes there's something lacking
What they need's a damn good whacking

Everywhere there's lots of piggies
Living piggy lives
You can see them out for dinner
With their piggy wives
Clutching forks and knives to eat their bacon

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