The IRS scandal is about targeting conservatives, not scrutinizing 501(c)(4)s

May 29, 2013

NBC News reports that the IRS story goes way beyond Cincinnati, "with requests for information coming from other offices and often bearing the signatures of higher-ups at the agency, according to attorneys representing some of the targeted groups."

I was on "Morning Joe" today when Jay Sekulow, one of those attorneys, detailed the vastness of the conspiracy. His argument relies, as far as I could tell, on confusing what the IRS scandal is about.

Here's what everyone agrees on: The Determinations Unit based out of the Cincinnati IRS targeted 501(c)(4) applications that used tea party-related terms for extra scrutiny. Whether the intent was benign, as the IRS swears, or rogue agents were carrying out a political vendetta, the effect was to politicize the IRS's filtering process. That's a huge problem.

Here's what Sekulow is saying: Tea party groups received questions about their political activities that originated from a variety of different IRS offices, not just Cincinnati. That's not necessarily a problem and it's not even new information.

It was proper that the tea party groups received heavy scrutiny. As the New York Times has firmly established, many of them were primarily political groups that potentially didn't qualify for 501(c)(4) status.

When CVFC, a conservative veterans’ group in California, applied for tax-exempt status with the Internal Revenue Service, its biggest expenditure that year was several thousand dollars in radio ads backing a Republican candidate for Congress.

The Wetumpka Tea Party, from Alabama, sponsored training for a get-out-the-vote initiative dedicated to the “defeat of President Barack Obama” while the I.R.S. was weighing its application.

And the head of the Ohio Liberty Coalition, whose application languished with the I.R.S. for more than two years, sent out e-mails to members about Mitt Romney campaign events and organized members to distribute Mr. Romney’s presidential campaign literature.

Those groups deserved more scrutiny!

Sekulow is conflating the targeting, which is a scandal, and the scrutiny, which isn't. It would be a scandal if it turned out the Cincinnati determinations unit was directed to filter tea party groups by someone in Washington. But we already knew that some of the applications, once chosen for extra scrutiny, made their way to other branches.

The first page of the Inspector General's report says that "If the Determinations Unit needs technical assistance processing applications, it may call upon the Technical Unit in the Rulings and Agreements office in Washington, D.C." The rest of the report details a number of instances in which they did just that. For instance, on March 16, "The Acting Manager, Technical Unit, requested two more cases be transferred to Washington, D.C." On another occasion, "the Senior Technical Advisor and a team of specialists visited the Determinations Unit in Cincinnati, Ohio, and began reviewing cases."

It wasn't just the technical specialists who were involved. The IG notes that "applications could be approved, but a referral for follow-up could be sent to another unit, which could review the activities of an organization at a later date to determine if they were consistent with the organization’s tax-exempt status."

In other words, we've known for some time that the Determinations Unit was not the only group in the IRS that touched the applications targeted for extra scrutiny. The National Review, for instance, made a big deal of this when the IG report was first released, titling their story "Oversight From Washington, All Along."

What would be a change is if we found that the Determinations Unit wasn't the only group that decided to apply extra scrutiny to tea party-related groups.  If new information came out showing that IRS higher-ups were remotely encouraging the targeting, that would considerably widen the blast zone of this scandal. But as the IG report tells the story, on the two occasions when the IRS higher-ups learned about the targeting of tea party groups, they put a stop to it. Nothing, so far, has challenged that conclusion.

Sekulow is trying to widen the scandal by changing the premise: He's arguing that the real problem here was the actual questioning of tea party groups applying for 501(c)(4) status, and so anyone who participated in the work of trying to follow up on the applications chosen for extra scrutiny did something wrong. That gets this backwards: The problem wasn't that the IRS closely scrutinized questionable applications from tea party groups. It's that they didn't closely scrutinized the applications from other questionable groups as well. The scrutiny was the part they did right. The targeting was the part they did wrong.

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Neil Irwin · May 29, 2013