IRS gets one month to clear tea party cases

Agency’s tar­get­ing wears out pa­tience of fed­eral judge

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - BY STEPHEN DINAN

A fed­eral judge has or­dered the IRS to fi­nally clean up the tea party tar­get­ing mess, giv­ing the tax agency less than a month to de­cide on a hand­ful of ap­pli­ca­tions that are still pend­ing more than three years af­ter of­fi­cials first ad­mit­ted they were tar­get­ing the con­ser­va­tive groups and sub­ject­ing them to in­tru­sive scru­tiny.

The IRS also must file a brief de­tail­ing the steps it has taken to pre­vent fur­ther tar­get­ing and to make sure the tea party groups don’t face any more fall­out from the stigma of hav­ing been sin­gled out in the first place, U.S. District Judge Reg­gie B. Wal­ton said in an or­der.

Judge Wal­ton or­dered fi­nal de­ci­sions on two ap­pli­ca­tions that have been pend­ing for years and said four other groups that had with­drawn their ap­pli­ca­tions amid the un­con­sti­tu­tional tar­get­ing can re­sub­mit and the IRS must de­cide on those, too, by Nov. 11.

The Al­bu­querque Tea Party, which filed its ap­pli­ca­tion in De­cem­ber 2009, has been wait­ing nearly seven years. Unite in Ac­tion, a Michigan-based group, ap­plied in 2010.

Judge Wal­ton called that “an ex­or­bi­tant period of time” and said the IRS should have been able to act once it ad­mit­ted it was tar­get­ing the groups.

“These de­ter­mi­na­tions should have been made by now,” he said at a hear­ing last week.

Joseph Sergi, the Jus­tice Depart­ment lawyer han­dling the case for the IRS, ini­tially seemed to ob­ject, say­ing the IRS needed to let its own process play out. “We can’t rush, or not rush, the process,” he said.

But as it be­came clear that the judge was fed up with the de­lay, Mr. Sergi changed his tone and said the wait had grown too long.

“I agree, your honor,” he told Judge Wal­ton.

The or­der doesn’t mean the groups have to be ap­proved. The IRS can go through its reg­u­lar process to de­cide whether the or­ga­ni­za­tions meet the cri­te­ria for non­prof­its — and in par­tic­u­lar whether they limit their political ac­tiv­i­ties in ac­cor­dance with the rules.

But the judge’s or­der is yet an­other black eye on the tax agency, which for years has re­sisted calls to halt the tar­get­ing.

The IRS ad­mit­ted in 2013 that it sin­gled out con­ser­va­tive and tea party groups for spe­cial scru­tiny. The agency cre­ated “be on look­out,” or BOLO lists that flagged the groups and shunted them into a more in­tru­sive screen­ing process.

Groups were forced to an­swer prob­ing — and the agency now ad­mits in­ap­pro­pri­ate — ques­tions about mem­bers and their as­so­ci­a­tions.

IRS of­fi­cials in­sist the tar­get­ing ended in 2013 af­ter they sus­pended use of the BOLO lists and agreed not to ask in­ap­pro­pri­ate ques­tions. But they have re­fused to con­cede that they vi­o­lated the groups’ con­sti­tu­tional rights and have said some prob­ing ques­tions are nec­es­sary.

A fed­eral ap­peals court this sum­mer ruled that as long as some groups are still blocked from tax-ex­empt sta­tus, the IRS is still tar­get­ing. Groups that went through the process have also sued, ar­gu­ing that they are more likely to face au­dits or other ad­verse con­se­quences be­cause they were tar­geted in the be­gin­ning.

Judge Wal­ton said that in ad­di­tion to pro­cess­ing the out­stand­ing ap­pli­ca­tions, the IRS must prove that it has ceased any ill be­hav­ior to­ward the tea party groups. He said they must cer­tify that in a fil­ing next month — along with proof.

Three groups that ap­plied years ago are still await­ing ap­proval. Two of them are in cases pend­ing be­fore Judge Wal­ton, while an­other, the Texas Pa­tri­ots Tea Party, is part of a class-ac­tion law­suit in fed­eral court in Ohio.

Ear­lier this month, the IRS sent the Texas Pa­tri­ots Tea Party yet an­other round of prob­ing ques­tions — the fourth since the group ap­plied for non­profit sta­tus in 2012.

In doc­u­ments filed in court, IRS agent Jerry Fierro de­manded that the group ex­plain its in­volve­ment with “ed­u­ca­tional work­shops, speak­ing events, voter regis­tra­tion drives, fund rais­ers and straw polls.”

The IRS, which has held up the ap­pli­ca­tion for 41 months, gave the tea party group 30 days to re­spond or have its ap­pli­ca­tion re­jected as in­com­plete.

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