Wider Problems Found at IRS
Probe Says Tax Agency Used Sweeping Criteria to Scrutinize Conservative Groups
The investigation also revealed that a high-ranking IRS official knew as early as mid-2011 that conservative groups were being inappropriately targeted—nearly a year before then-IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman told a congressional committee the agency wasn’t targeting conservative groups.
Associated PressTax-exempt groups organized under section 501(c)(4) of the Internal Revenue Code are allowed to engage in some political activity, but the primary focus of their efforts must remain promoting social welfare.
The details emerged from disclosures to congressional investigators by the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration. The findings, which were reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, don’t make clear who came up with the idea to give extra scrutiny to the conservative groups.
The inspector general’s office has been conducting an audit of the IRS’s handling of the applications process and is expected to release a report this week. The audit follows complaints last year by numerous tea-party and other conservative groups that they had been singled out and subjected to excessive and inappropriate questioning. Many groups say they were asked for lists of their donors and other sensitive information.
On Sunday, a government official said the report will note that IRS officials told investigators that no one outside the IRS was involved in developing the criteria the agency now acknowledges were flawed.
On Friday, Lois Lerner, head of the IRS tax-exempt-organizations division, said the agency was “apologetic” for what she termed “absolutely inappropriate” actions by lower-level workers. She said those workers had selected some conservative groups for extra scrutiny to determine whether their applications should be approved. She said they had picked groups for extra scrutiny according to whether they had “tea party” or “patriot” in their names, among other criteria.
Ms. Lerner came to the IRS in 2001 from the Federal Election Commission, and assumed her current position in 2006. IRS officials said Sunday that Ms. Lerner wasn’t available for comment, and she didn’t respond to an emailed request.
GOP lawmakers stepped up their criticism on Sunday. “The bottom line is [IRS officials] used key words to go after conservatives,” Rep. Darrell Issa (R., Calif.), said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “There has to be accountability for the people who did it. And, quite frankly…there’s got to be accountability for people who were telling lies about it being done.”
Some Democrats also voiced criticism. “I’m concerned about that,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.), also on NBC. “Somebody made the decision that they would give extra scrutiny to this particular group. And I think we have to understand why.”
The IRS said over the weekend it is in the process of independently confirming the dates mentioned on the timeline of events contained in the inspector general report, “but we believe the TIGTA timeline is correct.” The IRS said the report supports its view that its missteps weren’t politically motivated and were limited to lower-level workers.
The IRS also said the report reflects that “IRS senior leadership was not aware of this level of specific details” at the time of a March 2012 hearing where Mr. Shulman denied any targeting of conservative groups. Mr. Shulman, who no longer works for the IRS, declined to comment.
Tax-exempt social-welfare groups organized under section 501(c)(4) of the Internal Revenue Code are allowed to engage in some political activity, but the primary focus of their efforts must remain promoting social welfare. That social-welfare activity can include lobbying and advocating for issues and legislation, but not outright political-campaign activity. But some of the rules leave room for IRS officials to make judgment calls and probe individual groups for further information.
IRS officials said last week that the focused review of conservative groups was initiated by lower-level civil servants in the IRS Cincinnati office, not by political appointees in Washington, and that it wasn’t politically motivated. They say it stemmed from a misguided effort to centralize review of a growing number of applications for tax-exempt 501(c)(4) status.
The timeline contained in the draft report indicates that IRS scrutiny of tea-party and other conservative groups began as early as 2010 and came to the attention of Ms. Lerner, the head of the tax-exempt-organizations division, at least by the following year.
The report’s timeline indicates that the criteria were changed to be more neutral in July 2011 after Ms. Lerner “raised concerns.” The criteria for heightened scrutiny continued to evolve over the next year or so, even as complaints from tea-party groups—and questions from GOP lawmakers—mounted over IRS inquiries to various groups about their activities.
According to the draft report, on April 24 and 25 of last year, officials in Ms. Lerner’s office were reviewing “troubling questions” that had been asked of organizations, including “the names of donors.”
Ms. Lerner’s April 26 letter to Mr. Issa, the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said that “there are instances where donor information may be needed…such as when the application presents possible issues of…private benefit.”
The report indicates that in 2010 and 2011, some IRS workers weren’t just singling out groups because their names contained certain words, as IRS officials suggested on Friday, but appeared to be probing for indications of political interests or leanings.
According to the report, by June 2011 some IRS specialists were probing applications using the following criteria: “issues include government spending, government debt or taxes; education of the public by advocacy/lobbying to ‘make America a better place to live’; statements in the case file criticize how the country is being run.”