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U.S. House panel sues Treasury, IRS as it seeks Trump tax returns

A Democratic-led U.S. House of Representatives panel files a long-awaited lawsuit in federal court to demand President Donald Trump's individual and business tax returns.

Committees investigating president have been working to enforce subpoenas

A U.S. House committee filed a lawsuit against the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump seeking his tax returns. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

A Democratic-led U.S. House of Representatives panel on Tuesday filed a long-awaited lawsuit in federal court to demand President Donald Trump's individual and business tax returns.

The House ways and means committee filed the lawsuit against the U.S. Treasury Department and Internal Revenue Service (IRS) after Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin refused a legal request for the records and defied two congressional subpoenas seeking the returns.

The filing sounded the starting gun in what is widely expected to be a lengthy legal battle that is likely to end in the U.S. Supreme Court.

There was no immediate comment from the Trump administration, but Trump attorney Jay Sekulow said, "We will respond to this latest effort at presidential harassment in court."

"In refusing to comply with the statute, Defendants have mounted an extraordinary attack on the authority of Congress to obtain information needed to conduct oversight of Treasury, the IRS, and the tax laws on behalf of the American people," the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit said the committee believes it was the first time an administration has denied such a request.

Ways and means committee chairman Richard Neal requested six years of Trump's returns on April 3, under a federal law that says the Treasury "shall furnish" the documents. Neal said in a statement that the panel was now pursuing the matter in court because of the administration's "noncompliance."

Richard Neal, chair of the House ways and means committee, has asked for six years of U.S. President Donald Trump's tax returns, and could also request his state tax returns from New York. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

"The judiciary has been a bulwark against Trump's steaming corruption and roughshod lawlessness. I have no doubt our lower courts will side with Congress," Rep. Bill Pascrell, a ways and means Democrat who has helped lead the campaign to obtain Trump's returns, wrote on Twitter.

Democrats who wanted Neal to move to court more quickly expressed relief at the filing.

"This long-overdue legal action is needed to keep this bad president from setting a bad precedent," Rep. Lloyd Doggett said in a statement.

But Congressional Republicans condemned the effort as a dangerous political fishing expedition by Democrats that could "weaponize" confidential taxpayer information.

"The Democrats' partisan, flawed lawsuit continues their unprecedented and illegitimate pursuit to expose President Trump's private tax information," Rep. Kevin Brady, the top Republican on Neal's committee, said in a statement.

Multiple investigations underway

The ways and means committee is one of half a dozen panels in the House of Representatives that are conducting investigations involving Trump and his administration, from his campaign's contacts with Russians during the 2016 presidential race to the sprawling business interests he has not divested since taking office.

The White House is refusing to co-operate with most of them, setting up other expected legal battles like this one.

Trump broke with a decades-old political precedent by refusing to release his tax returns as a presidential candidate in 2016 and he continues to do so as president, saying they are under IRS audit.

His former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, has told a House panel that he does not believe Trump's taxes are under audit. Cohen said the president feared that releasing his returns could lead to an audit and IRS tax penalties.

Democrats are pressing Trump to release tax records from 2013 to 2018, which legal experts said could shed light on the president's business dealings. Such a legal process, experts said, could unfold slowly and become an issue in the 2020 election.

Their federal lawsuit said the administrations' continued refusal to produce the materials "is depriving the Committee of information necessary to complete its time-limited investigation, thereby impeding its most basic constitutional functions."

It asked the court to force the administration to comply.

Neal would also have the option to request Trump's state tax returns from the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance, after the state legislature voted in May to share tax return information with a congressional committee that asks for it.

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