Fed­eral watch­dog study finds IRS also tar­geted lib­eral groups un­fairly

Richmond Times-Dispatch Weekend - - NATION & WORLD - By TheWash­ing­ton Post

A fed­eral watch­dog has iden­ti­fied as many as 146 cases in which the IRS may have tar­geted lib­eral- lean­ing groups for ex­tra scru­tiny based on their names or po­lit­i­cal lean­ings, a find­ing that could un­der­mine claims that con­ser­va­tives were un­fairly tar­geted un­der Pres­i­dent Barack Obama.

The Trea­sury In­spec­tor Gen­eral for Tax Ad­min­is­tra­tion re­viewed cases be­tween May 2010 and May 2012, around the same pe­riod TIGTA pre­vi­ously ex­am­ined in a 2013 re­port that faulted the IRS for us­ing in­ap­pro­pri­ate po­lit­i­cal cri­te­ria to se­lect groups for height­ened scru­tiny.

That ear­lier re­port found that 96 groups with names ref­er­enc­ing “Tea Party,” “Pa­triot” or “9/ 12” were se­lected for in­ten­sive re­view, and the House Ways and Means Com­mit­tee later iden­ti­fied an ad­di­tional 152 right- lean­ing groups that were sub­jected to scru­tiny. Those find­ings fueled ac­cu­sa­tions by Repub­li­can law­mak­ers that the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion en­gaged in po­lit­i­cally mo­ti­vated tar­get­ing of con­ser­va­tives.

But Democrats have long chal­lenged those claims, ar­gu­ing that lib­eral- lean­ing groups were given close scru­tiny along­side the con­ser­va­tive groups. The 2013 TIGTA re­port, they ar­gued, was based on se­lec­tive cri­te­ria that omit­ted nu­mer­ous non­con­ser­va­tive groups that were also sub­jected to close IRS re­view.

The new TIGTA re­port ex­am­ines a broader range of cri­te­ria used by the IRS at the time, in­clud­ing groups af­fil­i­ated with the now- de­funct As­so­ci­a­tion of Com­mu­nity Or­ga­ni­za­tions for Re­form Now ( ACORN), as well as oth­ers ref­er­enc­ing “Pro­gres­sive,” “Green En­ergy,” “Med­i­cal Mar­i­juana” and “Oc­cupy.”

To­gether, the watch­dog iden­ti­fied 146 cases in which the IRS ex­am­ined left- lean­ing groups for sus­pi­cion of en­gag­ing in dis­al­lowed po­lit­i­cal ac­tiv­ity. Eighty- three of those were defini­tively cho­sen for scru­tiny be­cause of the se­lec­tion cri­te­ria, the in­spec­tor gen­eral found; the re­port could not defini­tively de­ter­mine how the other cases were cho­sen.

The new re­port re­it­er­ates the in­spec­tor gen­eral’s ear­lier crit­i­cism of the IRS re­view process at the time, call­ing it “in­ap­pro­pri­ate” to tar­get groups for scru­tiny based on their names rather than on ac­tual ev­i­dence of il­licit po­lit­i­cal ac­tiv­ity that would leave them in­el­i­gi­ble for tax ex­emp­tions.

Groups that were se­lected for re­view waited months— years, in some cases — for their ap­pli­ca­tions to be re­viewed and were sub­jected to oner­ous and, in some cases, im­proper re­quests for in­for­ma­tion on their donors and ac­tiv­i­ties.

For in­stance, IRS per­son­nel were told start­ing in 2010 to watch out for groups that had af­fil­i­a­tions with ACORN, a na­tional net­work of com­mu­nity- based or­ga­ni­za­tions that had col­lapsed amid al­le­ga­tions of wrong­do­ing by con­ser­va­tive ac­tivists.

Ul­ti­mately, at least 13 ap­pli­ca­tions for tax ex­emp­tions were flagged for scru­tiny based on pos­si­ble ACORN ties, and most of those groups waited over a year for their cases to be re­solved, the re­port said — mir­ror­ing many of the al­le­ga­tions lev­eled re­gard­ing con­ser­va­tive groups.

The re­port does not make rec­om­men­da­tions for fur­ther changes to IRS pol­icy, not­ing that the agency has “com­pletely re­vamped the process for re­view­ing tax- ex­empt ap­pli­ca­tions” since the pe­riod in ques­tion.

Other en­ti­ties have ex­am­ined the IRS’s han­dling of non­profit groups at the time and con­cluded that con­ser­va­tives were af­fected dis­pro­por­tion­ately. The Se­nate Fi­nance Com­mit­tee, for in­stance, con­cluded in 2015 that most of the groups whose ap­pli­ca­tions were given ex­tra scru­tiny were “Tea Party and con­ser­va­tive groups” but also ac­knowl­edged that some left- lean­ing groups “ex­pe­ri­enced lengthy pro­cess­ing de­lays and in­ap­pro­pri­ate and bur­den­some re­quests for in­for­ma­tion.”

Four years af­ter the tar­get­ing al­le­ga­tions prompted the res­ig­na­tion or re­tire­ment of three top IRS of­fi­cials, the con­tro­versy has con­tin­ued to sim­mer in Repub­li­can cir­cles. GOP law­mak­ers this year pressed the Jus­tice Depart­ment un­der Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump to re­visit the mat­ter and pros­e­cute for­mer IRS of­fi­cial Lois Lerner, who di­rected the unit that screened or­ga­ni­za­tions for tax ex­emp­tions, for ob­struc­tion of jus­tice.

In a let­ter to con­gres­sional of­fi­cials last month, As­sis­tant At­tor­ney Gen­eral Stephen

Boyd said that the Jus­tice Depart­ment “de­ter­mined that re­open­ing the crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion would not be ap­pro­pri­ate based on the avail­able ev­i­dence.”

Lerner has de­nied any crim­i­nal wrong­do­ing.

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