Politics & Policy

The IRS’s Tea-Party Targeting

An apology, but no explanation

The IRS denies having conducted a partisan witch-hunt against tea-party groups in the run-up to the 2012 election, arguing that its improper targeting of conservative groups was the result of a series of procedural errors rather than a political attack with malice aforethought.

But the IRS is keeping the relevant evidence secret, so you will just have to take the agency’s word for it.

Lois Lerner, the IRS official in charge of handling tax-exempt organizations, made what appeared to be an impromptu confession Friday during a tax conference hosted by the American Bar Association, saying that groups with the words “tea party” or “patriot” in their names were improperly targeted for additional levels of tax-status review by the agency. Those actions, she said, were “wrong” and “inappropriate,” but she denied that they were the result of political bias against tea-party groups. When asked how the IRS determined that the actions were not the result of political bias, Ms. Lerner could only say, “That is not how we do things.”

#ad#The problem originated in a Cincinnati IRS office — Ms. Lerner would not say which one — that handles applications from 501(c)(4) organizations, groups that under law may engage in political advocacy so long as electioneering accounts for less than half of their spending. The same branch of the IRS, dealing with such applications, also came under criticism last year when confidential tax documents filed by American Crossroads, the nonprofit organization associated with Karl Rove, were illegally leaked to the media and published by ProPublica, the nonprofit project funded in part by George Soros’s Open Society Foundations. No one has been charged in that crime. 

Ms. Lerner’s version of the story is that three things happened independently of one another:

First, “line people” — that’s IRS-speak for grunts — decided, on their own and with no direction from above, to create a special category of organizations applying for tax-exempt status: “Tea Party and Patriot” organizations. Ms. Lerner says that other organizations may have been specifically named, but when challenged could not think of one, and then added: “I only said that because I don’t like to say ‘absolutely not.’ But I don’t know.”

Second, that batch of applicants was delayed for an unusual period of time. Ms. Lerner said that this was the result of an unusually large number of applications coming in, but applications for tax-exempt status have been growing quickly since 2008 — making 2012’s bumper crop something less than an unforeseeable circumstance.

Third, and perhaps most troubling, those tea-party organizations were sent letters of inquiry demanding information that would seldom if ever be demanded of any other applicant in the process. The IRS demanded lists of donors, names of spouses and family members, detailed information about political views and associations — all of that “under penalties of perjury.” Many applicants dropped out of the process. The questions were remarkably invasive: For example, the IRS demanded to know not only whether political candidates participated in public forums conducted by the groups, but which issues were discussed, along with copies of any literature distributed at the forum and material published on websites. (The IRS has been less forthcoming with its own materials related to this investigation.) If the organizations collected dues, the IRS demanded to know how much they were. It demanded everything down to the résumés of employees. The inquiry was not limited to members of the organization, its executives, or its directors, but included even their family members: The IRS demanded to know — again, under penalty of perjury — whether any of their family members might be thinking about running for office. Its demand for the names of all donors — and all recipients of grants — is in violation of IRS policy.

#page#Ms. Lerner says that this is nothing more than a string of unfortunate bureaucratic events.

But Ms. Lerner is not always clear on what it is she wants to say. Asked directly whether any IRS employee had faced disciplinary action as a result of this incident, she replied, emphatically, “No.” A short while later she said she wishes to retract that, saying instead, “I’m not talking about that.”

Ms. Lerner also says that she did not inform her superiors about the problem, which must be a question of key interest to IRS commissioner Douglas Shulman, who during testimony before Congress last year denied that tea-party groups or other conservative organizations were being targeted by the IRS. That had been the IRS’s last word on the subject until today.

#ad#Why now? “Somebody asked me a question,” Ms. Lerner said. Apparently, if you want answers from our public officials, go to the American Bar Association’s tax conference, not a congressional hearing.

Other groups were included in this additional review, but while the office handles applications from all sorts of organizations, a full 25 percent of those targeted for additional review were “Tea Party” or “Patriot” groups.

“Obviously, you don’t get dozens of inquiries asking unconstitutional questions, with zero corresponding inquiries into liberal groups, unless there is something going on,” says David French, senior counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, which is representing 27 groups from 18 states in the IRS matter. “It’s not just the numbers, it’s the questions themselves. They were designed to dissect the operations of the organizations.” Mr. French believes that the IRS’s actions were intended as political intimidation.

He also is skeptical that the problem is limited to the Cincinnati office: “We dealt with offices from California to D.C. on this,” he says. With regard to the congressional testimony denying such targeting, he concludes: “Either they lied or they didn’t do the most basic due diligence.”

Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, said he expects Congress to look into the IRS’s “thuggery.” “In the same breath they say they specifically targeted conservative groups, they say there was no political bias,” he says. “Those two statements cannot both be true. As Cookie Monster says, one of these things is not like the other.”

The misuse of government resources is subject to civil, misdemeanor, and felony charges under federal and Ohio law. The abuse of IRS resources, including the collection of “confidential information contained in income tax returns for purposes not authorized by law, and [causing], in violation of the constitutional rights of citizens, income tax audits or other income tax investigations to be initiated or conducted in a discriminatory manner,” were cited in the second article of impeachment against Richard Nixon.

— Kevin D. Williamson is a roving correspondent for National Review. His newest book, The End Is Near and It’s Going to Be Awesome, was recently published. 

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