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Top Democrat Says Documents Show IRS Also Targeted Liberals

House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (right) speaks with the committee's ranking Democrat, Elijah Cummings, during a hearing last month.
Charles Dharapak
House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (right) speaks with the committee's ranking Democrat, Elijah Cummings, during a hearing last month.

Newly released documents appear to further undermine the idea that Tea Party groups were the only ones given extra scrutiny by the IRS for potential political activity.

Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., the ranking member on the House Oversight Committee, obtained and has released a PowerPoint presentation and minutes from an IRS workshop on July 28, 2010, instructing agents to flag applications for tax-exempt status from "progressive" groups as well as those with "Tea Party," "patriot" or "9/12" in their names. Another document shows that "Occupy" groups were later added to a list of organizations to be tapped for extra scrutiny.

In a letter to the committee's chairman, California Republican Rep. Darrell Issa, Cummings says the documents "raise serious questions about the Inspector General's report, his testimony before Congress, and his subsequent assertions in letters to Members of Congress."

In mid-May, the IRS inspector general's audit found the agency used "inappropriate criteria" that singled out "Tea Party and other organizations applying for tax-exempt status based upon their names or policy positions" rather than looking at their activities. Groups seeking 501(c)(4) tax-exempt status can engage in only a limited amount of campaign activity, and those seeking charitable 501(c)(3) status can't get involved in campaigns at all. In testimony and subsequent letters to members of Congress, Inspector General J. Russell George said his team found no evidence that "progressives" was a term used to refer cases for potential scrutiny.

Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration J. Russell George is sworn in before a full House Ways and Means Committee hearing in May.
Nicholas Kamm / AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration J. Russell George is sworn in before a full House Ways and Means Committee hearing in May.

The new documents seem to provide evidence to the contrary, though it's not clear whether investigators reviewed them as part of the audit. Karen Kraushaar, a spokeswoman for the inspector general's office, said in an email to NPR, "We stand by our findings and testimony."

A spokesman for Issa says the documents show that while both progressive and Tea Party groups were flagged for review by IRS agents, the Tea Party groups were treated differently. He points to a line in the meeting notes that reads, " 'Progressive' applications are not 'Tea Parties.' "

The spokesman says in an e-mail:

"These documents, once again, refute misleading attempts to equate routine scrutiny of other groups involved in advocacy to the systematic scrutiny of Tea Party groups by IRS officials. As has been documented, while 100% of Tea Party applications were systematically stopped and scrutinized for a 27 month period, at the same time dozens of progressive applications were approved by the IRS."

When the IRS inspector general's audit was released, Republicans and Democrats alike were quick to express their outrage. But it didn't take long for some Republicans, including Issa, to go further and accuse President Obama of using the IRS to target his political enemies. It's a claim that hasn't yet been proved by any evidence made publicly available.

Cummings also released an e-mail sent May 3 from the deputy inspector general for investigations to a number of officials at the inspector general's office. They reviewed about 5,000 emails between IRS employees involved in the flagging of Tea Party groups. The mission was to find out "if an e-mail existed that directed the staff to "target" Tea Party and other political organizations.

Here's what was found, according to the email:

"Review of these e-mails revealed that there was a lot of discussion between the employees on how to process the Tea Party and other political organization applications. There was a Be On the Lookout (BOLO) list specifically naming these groups; however, the e-mails indicated the organizations needed to be pulled because the IRS employees were not sure how to process them, not because they wanted to stall or hinder the application. There was no indication that pulling these selected applications was politically motivated. The e-mail traffic indicated there were unclear processing directions and the group wanted to make sure they had guidance on processing the applications so they pulled them. This is a very important nuance."

Issa has called a hearing for Thursday to explore "The IRS's Systematic Delay and Scrutiny of Tea Party Applications." It will look at the relationship between IRS employees in the Cincinnati field office, which was in charge of reviewing applications for tax-exempt status, and those in Washington, D.C. Based on interview transcripts reviewed by NPR, that's where the hangup seems to have been, causing delays in application reviews stretching for years.

As a result of the new documents, Cummings objects to the whole premise of the hearing. He also wants Issa to call George to testify and explain why he didn't mention any of this evidence in previous appearances before the committee.

No word yet on whether Issa will put the inspector general on the witness list.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.
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