IRS Apologizes For Inappropriately Targeting Tea Party Groups

For several years, Tea Party and other conservative groups have contended that they were being targeted for investigation by the Internal Revenue Service and it turns out that they were right.

For several years, Tea Party and other conservative groups have contended that they were being targeted for investigation by the Internal Revenue Service and it turns out that they were right:

WASHINGTON — The Internal Revenue Service inappropriately flagged conservative political groups for additional reviews during the 2012 election to see if they were violating their tax-exempt status, a top IRS official said Friday.

Organizations were singled out because they included the words “tea party” or “patriot” in their applications for tax-exempt status, said Lois Lerner, who heads the IRS division that oversees tax-exempt groups.

In some cases, groups were asked for their list of donors, which violates IRS policy in most cases, she said.

“That was wrong. That was absolutely incorrect, it was insensitive and it was inappropriate. That’s not how we go about selecting cases for further review,” Lerner said at a conference sponsored by the American Bar Association.

“The IRS would like to apologize for that,” she added.

Lerner said the practice was initiated by low-level workers in Cincinnati and was not motivated by political bias. After her talk, she told The AP that no high level IRS officials knew about the practice. She did not say when they found out.

About 75 groups were inappropriately targeted. None had their tax-exempt status revoked, Lerner said.

Many conservative groups complained during the election that they were being harassed by the IRS. They accused the agency of frustrating their attempts to become tax exempt by sending them lengthy, intrusive questionnaires.

The forms, which the groups made available at the time, sought information about group members’ political activities, including details of their postings on social networking websites and about family members.

Certain tax-exempt charitable groups can conduct political activities but it cannot be their primary activity.

IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman told Congress in March 2012 that the IRS was not targeting groups based on their political views.

“There’s absolutely no targeting. This is the kind of back and forth that happens to people” who apply for tax-exempt status, Shulman told a House Ways and Means subcommittee.

Shulman was appointed by President George W. Bush. His 6-year term ended in November. President Barack Obama has yet to nominate a successor. The agency is now being run by acting Commissioner Steven Miller.

“I don’t think there’s any question we were unfairly targeted,” said Tom Zawistowski, who until recently was president of the Ohio Liberty Coalition, an alliance of tea party groups in the state.

Zawistowski’s group was among many conservative organizations that battled the IRS over what they saw as its discriminatory treatment of their effort to gain non-profit status. The group first applied for non-profit status in June 2009, and it was finally granted on Dec. 7, 2012, he said — one month after Election Day.

Targeting groups or people based on their political beliefs is, of course, strictly forbidden and completely unacceptable. It is one of the things that Richard Nixon and his cronies were accused of doing during the Watergate scandal, and ever since then there were supposed to have been strict rules in place to prevent outside pressure from effecting IRS investigations. There doesn’t seem to be any evidence that this happened here, but it seems bizarre to me for Lerner to say that the investigations were “not motivated by political bias.” Even if this was all the work of low-level workers in one IRS office, the fact that the investigation targeted only groups of a specific political nature suggests pretty strongly that it was motivated by political bias even if it was just the political bias of these “low-level workers.”

FILED UNDER: Quick Takes, Taxes, Tea Party
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed for too young in July 2021.

Comments

  1. An Interested Party says:

    Time to impeach the President…

  2. legion says:

    OK, so how about investigating all those churches who’ve violated the tax laws by endorsing & campaigning for candidates for the last 12 years or so?

  3. JKB says:

    So that story is bereft of details on how many job openings the IRS now has in Cincinnati? Surely, if low level employees with complete ignorance of the higher ups are violating IRS policy in such a manner, there would be adverse personnel actions taken?

    Or was the “ignorance” with a wink and a nod?

  4. Butch Bracknell says:

    If Miller was the deputy commish, he should be sacked.

  5. Franklin says:

    Certain tax-exempt charitable groups can conduct political activities but it cannot be their primary activity.

    This sentence makes the situation confusing to me. In what way are tea party groups not primarily political?

    Don’t jump on me, I’m just asking. For all I’m concerned this would apply to Occupy groups or churches or anybody else.

  6. Modulo Myself says:

    The IRS seems to have done nothing wrong here except use their brains when a deluge of Tea Party non-profits started appearing.

  7. @Franklin:

    This sentence makes the situation confusing to me. In what way are tea party groups not primarily political?

    Nonprofits are allowed to be political, they’re just not allowed to campaign. That is, the Sierra Club can say “we need stronger regulations on air pollution” and maintain nonprofit status, they just can’t say “vote for Senator Snodgrass, because he’ll fight for stronger regulations on air pollution”.

  8. matt bernius says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    Nonprofits are allowed to be political, they’re just not allowed to campaign.

    Actually, I believe it’s that they are not allowed to campaign *for* a specific candidate. They can, however, campaign *against* candidates and candidate’s policies.

  9. PD Shaw says:

    @Franklin: The tea-party nonprofits are probably organized as social welfare organizations under Section 501(c)(4). of the Tax Code. I think the political limitations on these organizations are not very significant; they can lobby if they register. I believe the political, lobbying arm of the Sierra Club is a Section 501(c)(4) organization, but contributions to that part of Sierra Club are not deductible for the contributor. My link to Wikipedia says they can’t advocate for a particular candidate.

  10. ObamaHillbilly says:

    I can not tell a lie. I did it.

  11. Moosebreath says:

    At last we have something in the way of an Obama “scandal” that gets past 1.5 on a scale of 1 to 10, in that if this were ordered from above it is clearly illegal. Now there needs to be investigation as to how up up the chain this one goes.

  12. Rob in CT says:

    Investigate, sort out who was involved, and fire some people.

  13. matt bernius says:

    @Rob in CT:
    THIS. At a minimum, the Cincinnati office management should be purged along with the individuals involved with this.

  14. mantis says:

    This is pretty outrageous, even if none of the groups were denied tax-exempt status. Some people should be fired for this.

  15. Brett says:

    There should definitely be inquiries into this, although I suspect House Republicans will quickly divert them into attempts to try and pin this on Obama.

  16. wr says:

    @Brett: “There should definitely be inquiries into this, although I suspect House Republicans will quickly divert them into attempts to try and pin this on Obama. ”

    Um, guys? Did you notice something about this story? You see, it was the IRS itself that says this was done by some of its employees. It’s not like Darrell Issa uncovered the hidden truth. Some groups complained, the IRS looked into it, discovered that the complaints were valid, and admitted it.

    This is not a scandal. This is the way government is supposed to work.

    Now granted, it would be peachy if everyone in government did the right thing all the time. But since we live among humans, the fact that the agency in question actually looked into this and admitted fault is pretty much the gold standard of behavior.

    And yes, some people should probably be fired. And they probably should be fired.

    But this is actually a moment to admire Obama’s administration.

  17. Commonist says:

    Target people who think they are the anointed chosen of the founding fathers? The groups who think they are above the law and the government is completely illegitimate because the president has the wrong party and skin? The groups who say income tax is unconstitutional?

    Is the IRS supposed to ignore it if high-pitched giggling and the sounds of compulsive snack eating is emanating from a car filled with dense gray smoke? Is the entire United States retarded?

  18. Pete S says:

    Commonist is absolutely right. Using the IRS to harass political organizations is wrong. But if you name your organization after a TAX REVOLT should you not expect the tax authorities to watch you a little closer?

  19. Modulo Myself says:

    From Gawker:

    Of 300 such groups reviewed by a team of “low level” Treasury Department employees based in Cincinnati, a quarter of those were affiliated by name with the Tea Party political movement, which is an active if now-fading part of the Republican Party—the list of the 225 reviewed non-profit applicants that didn’t mention Republican tea party and patriot groups wasn’t mentioned in coverage of Lerner’s apology today.

    In a “Fiscal Year 2012 Work Plan” signed by Lerner, the job of checking new self-declared non-profit organizations for prohibited political campaigning and lobbying is described as a routine part of election year monitoring of groups that should be 507 organizations—where donations are not tax-deductible—instead of legitimate non-profit groups that can advocate for causes but not for candidates or ballot measures.

    It sounds like most of these groups should have been reviewed, just as others were. I’m guessing that the mind-numbing repetition of the words ‘Tea’ and ‘Patriot’ made it easy for IRS workers to cut a few corners and assume that Tea Patriots United for Patriotism was into politics rather than doing the legwork that would have proven so.

  20. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    @wr: Um, guys? Did you notice something about this story? You see, it was the IRS itself that says this was done by some of its employees. It’s not like Darrell Issa uncovered the hidden truth. Some groups complained, the IRS looked into it, discovered that the complaints were valid, and admitted it.

    This is not a scandal. This is the way government is supposed to work.

    Astonishing. wr was almost right.

    It will prove to be “the way government is supposed to work” if the responsible parties are identified, fired, and banned from ever holding a government job again. Pour encourager les autres, as it were.

  21. wr says:

    @Jenos Idanian #13: “It will prove to be “the way government is supposed to work” if the responsible parties are identified, fired, and banned from ever holding a government job again. ”

    Hey Stupid,

    I realize you’ve never held a job that didn’t require a nametag, but in the real world if an organization fires an employee for failing to properly do their job, they don’t send out a press release with the employee’s name.

    Unless and until these people are charged with a crime, it would be absurd to “identify” them so that cretins like you can harass them.

    Nor is it considered proper for an employer to attempt to ensure that the fired employee is never able to work again. In fact, such actions would almost certainly lead to a successful and very lucrative lawsuit against the agency.

    Unless it’s determined that a crime has been committed, the punishment is being fired. It’s not becoming the target of Michelle Malkin’s screaming harpies brigade.

    Here’s a news flash, stupid: Unless they’re charged with a crime, their names are none of your business.

    And I’d say the same thing if these were Republicans targeting Democrats.

  22. anjin-san says:

    Find out who was involved, and fire them. Maybe fire their boss as well. Case closed.

  23. Dave Schuler says:

    @anjin-san:

    Agreed. I would also ask the bosses to complete this sentence:

    “It is appropriate for low level Internal Revenue Service employees to set IRS policy because…”

    There is no right way to finish that sentence. It’s never appropriate for low level employees to set policy but, if the news coverage is accurate, that’s what the IRS managers are saying. That means it’s a management problem.

  24. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    @wr: News flash, stupid: “identified” doesn’t mean “publicly identified.” It means that the officials figure out just who was involved, and punish them accordingly.

    Amazing how you not only made a huge false assumption, but then spent six paragraphs ranting about your own stupid assumption.

    It’s remarkable. Your ability to rant about me has evolved to the point where I don’t even have to participate; you just make up something all on your own and go off.

  25. bill says:

    @Pete S: logically, but our gov’t. isn’t supposed to profile like that.

  26. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    I’m just glad they’re weeding out all these bad apples before the IRS takes on the job of enforcing ObamaCare. Boy, we really dodged a bullet there…

  27. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    Whoops… according to Karen Tumulty of the Washington Post, there will be NO disciplinary action taken in this case. The IRS confirmed this on a conference call with the press, she says.

    I’m sure the IRS learned its lesson…

  28. fred says:

    IRS was just doing its duty as TP and other conservative groups were supporting anarchy and hurling threats at POTUS. In the same way CIA is responsible for reducing terrorism threats and FBI figths crime, IRS also has responsiblities. Mainstream media such as Politico, CNN and others seem to forget that fact. IRS was right and have no apologies to make. Neither does Pres Obama who some believe is even responsible for the ants in their garden.