The admission by an official of the IRS that the tax agency was targeting conservative tea party groups comes as no surprise to those who work with tea party organizations and their leaders in the conservative grassroots arena. The Washington Post reports that Lois Lerner, the head of the IRS division that oversees tax-exempt groups, acknowledged that organizations applying for tax-exempt status were singled out if they had the words “tea party” or “patriot” in their names.
Lerner apologized on behalf of the IRS and said it was “absolutely incorrect, it was insensitive and it was inappropriate.” Not only were the organizations’ applications delayed, but they were improperly asked for voluminous amounts of information to which the IRS was not entitled, according to Cleta Mitchell, a Washington lawyer who represents a number of tea party organizations. Lerner admitted that many were asked to provide “their list of donors,” which Lerner also said violates IRS policy.
Lerner claimed that “the practice was initiated by low-level workers in Cincinnati and was not motivated by political bias.” But without providing any other explanation, reasonable people will wonder what reason other than political bias explains targeting organizations with “tea party” or “patriot” in their names? The only relevant or substantive thing these organizations have in common is that they are all conservative politically. Mitchell told me that “it was apparent to many of us that there was something sinister going on inside the IRS. Now the head of the Exempt Organizations unit has admitted it.”
Mitchell also questions the claim that this was just “low-level” employees in Cincinnati. She encountered this same problem in multiple IRS offices in her representation of numerous clients, including the Washington, D.C., office of the IRS. She also says that more than one of the IRS agents she dealt with told her that the instructions to target conservative groups came from Washington.
Even assuming the harassment was initiated by low-level workers in the field, how could the practice have continued for approximately four years over the strenuous objection of lawyers representing many Tea Party groups before the IRS if there were not more senior officials, somewhere in the IRS, supporting it?
The American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) has confirmed that it represents 27 targeted conservative groups across 18 states. They were asked totally inappropriate questions about their members, their families, their donors, the purposes and activities of their organizations, and even their postings on websites and social networks. These questions for ACLJ’s clients also came in from multiple IRS offices, not just Cincinnati.
In addition, despite the IRS’s acknowledgment of its wrongdoing, many of Mitchell’s clients have still not been granted their tax-exempt status. One of those organizations has been waiting since 2009, and its only sin seems to be that it spoke out against Obamacare. More than a dozen of ACLJ’s clients are also still waiting.
Finally, there is no indication that the IRS has disciplined, transferred, or terminated any of the employees who were unlawfully targeting conservative organizations and demanding information and documents in violation of IRS rules and regulations.
Senator Mitch McConnell (R–KY) has called for the Obama Administration to conduct a “transparent, government-wide review aimed at assuring the American people that these thuggish practices are not underway at the IRS or elsewhere in the administration.” But Congress should also exercise its oversight function and conduct public hearings on who authorized these actions at the IRS, how far up the chain of command this illegal targeting of American citizens went, and what procedures have been put in place to ensure this does not happen again.