Internal Revenue Service officials in Washington and at least two other offices were involved with investigating conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status, making clear that the effort reached well beyond the branch in Cincinnati that was initially blamed, according to documents obtained by The Washington Post.
IRS officials at the agency’s Washington headquarters sent queries to conservative groups asking about their donors and other aspects of their operations, while officials in the El Monte and Laguna Niguel offices in California sent similar questionnaires to tea-party-affiliated groups, the documents show.
IRS employees in Cincinnati told conservatives seeking the status of “social welfare” groups that a task force in Washington was overseeing their applications, according to interviews with the activists.
Lois G. Lerner, who oversees tax-exempt groups for the IRS, told reporters Friday that the “absolutely inappropriate” actions were undertaken by “front-line people” working in Cincinnati to target groups with “tea party,” “patriot” or “9/12” in their names.
In one instance, however, Ron Bell, an IRS employee, informed a lawyer representing a conservative group focused on voter fraud that the application was under review in Washington. On several other occasions, IRS officials in Washington and California sent conservative groups detailed questionnaires about their voter outreach and other activities, according to the documents.
“For the IRS to say it was some low-level group in Cincinnati is simply false,” said Cleta Mitchell, a partner in the law firm Foley & Lardner who sought to communicate with IRS headquarters about the delay in granting tax-exempt status to True the Vote.
Moreover, details of the IRS’s efforts to target conservative groups reached the highest levels of the agency in May 2012, far earlier than has been disclosed, according to Republican congressional aides briefed by the IRS and the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) on the details of their reviews.
Then-Commissioner Douglas Shulman, a George W. Bush appointee who stepped down in November, received a briefing from the TIGTA about what was happening in the Cincinnati office in May 2012, the aides said. His deputy and the agency’s current acting commissioner, Steven T. Miller, also learned about the matter that month, the aides said.
The officials did not share details with Republican lawmakers who had been demanding to know whether the IRS was targeting conservative groups, Republicans said.
“I wrote to the IRS three times last year after hearing concerns that conservative groups were being targeted,” Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (Utah), the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, said in a statement Monday. “In response to the first letter I sent with some of my colleagues, Steven Miller, the current Acting IRS Commissioner, responded that these groups weren’t being targeted.”
“Knowing what we know now,” he added, “the IRS was at best being far from forth coming, or at worst, being deliberately dishonest with Congress.”
In a news conference Monday, President Obama said he learned of the investigating in media reports on Friday and has “no patience with it.”
“If in fact IRS personnel engaged in the kind of practices that have been reported on, and were intentionally targeting conservative groups, then that’s outrageous,” Obama said. “And there’s no place for it. And they have to be held fully accountable.”
White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters Monday that the White House counsel’s office learned of an upcoming IRS inspector general’s report on April 22 as part of a routine notification but had not received access to the report.
On Capitol Hill, two Senate panels – the Finance Committee and the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations – announced Monday that they will investigate. The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and the Ways and Means Committee have been looking into reports of IRS attempts to single out organizations on the right for heightened scrutiny. Ways and Means has called IRS officials to testify Friday.
“These actions by the IRS are an outrageous abuse of power and a breach of the public’s trust,” said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.). “The IRS will now be the ones put under additional scrutiny.”
Separately, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio) introduced companion bills Monday that would require the IRS to fire any employee found “willfully” violating “the constitutional rights of a taxpayer,” according to statements by both lawmakers. The bills also would make them criminally liable for their actions.
Even as Obama vowed that his administration “will make sure that we find out exactly what happened on this,” however, the IRS offered no new information on how it selected which groups to single out for scrutiny.
The White House is legally barred from contacting the IRS about a tax matter, under a prohibition adopted after the Watergate scandal. And although it can contact the Treasury Department about tax issues, neither Treasury nor the IRS can disclose specific taxpayer information. The IRS can release information about a petition for tax-exempt status only after it has been approved.
Obama is not in a position to remove Lerner, a career official who can be terminated for cause only under normal civil service proceedings. The IRS has two political appointees: the commissioner, who serves a five-year term, and the chief counsel.
As the IRS came under broader political attack Monday, more details surfaced on how the exempt-organizations division struggled to determine which nonprofits should receive “social welfare” status after the 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling. That decision, which allowed corporations and unions to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money on elections, opened the door for groups to accept undisclosed contributions as long as their “primary purpose” was not politics.
In a Jan. 9, 2012, letter to the Richmond Tea Party, IRS specialist Stephen Seok asked questions including “the names of the donors, contributors and grantors,” as well as the size of the contributions and grants, and when they were given.
Richmond Tea Party President Larry Nordvig, whose group applied for tax-exempt status in December 2009 and received it in July 2012, said the extended inquiry had “a very chilling effect” on how much money the group could raise because its donors preferred anonymity.
The Wetumpka Tea Party of Alabama experienced a two-year delay after submitting its initial application.
Becky Gerritson, a 44-year-old stay-at-home mother and the group’s president, said the IRS sent a questionnaire asking for the names of all volunteers, donor identification and contribution amounts, the names of any legislators its members had communicated with directly or indirectly, and the contents of all speeches its members had made, among a long list of other details.
“I was outraged,” Gerritson said. “Being an election year, I felt like it was intimidation.”
The group did not provide the information. Approval came only after the group sought help from the American Center for Law and Justice, which threatened a lawsuit against the IRS, Gerritson said.
Although some of the groups were explicitly labeled “tea party” or “patriot,” others that came under intense scrutiny were focused on challenging the Affordable Care Act – known by many as Obamacare – or the integrity of federal elections.
In a June 3, 2011, letter to the IRS, Mitchell questioned the agency’s motivations for delaying recognition of one of her clients who had filed nearly two years earlier, writing, “Is the [group’s] opposition to Obamacare and the takeover of America’s healthcare system by the government the reason that this application has been held up and not approved?”
Catherine Engelbrecht, president of the Houston-based True the Vote, first filed for tax-exempt status in July 2010. At one point, Engelbrecht – who is still awaiting a determination from the IRS regarding her voting rights organization and a separate tea party group, King Street Patriots – said an IRS employee informed her: “I’m just doing what Washington is telling me to do. I’m just asking what they want me to ask.”
The IRS did not respond to requests for comment Monday.