Rather, Lerner said, they were a misguided effort to come up with an efficient means of dealing with a flood of applications from organizations seeking tax-exempt status between 2010 and 2012.
During that period, about 75 groups were selected for extra inquiry — including burdensome questionnaires and, in some cases, improper requests for the names of their donors — simply because of the words in their names, she said in a conference call with reporters.
They constituted about one-quarter of the 300 groups who were flagged for additional analysis by employees of the IRS tax-exempt unit’s main office in Cincinnati.
It was not clear whether the IRS had anticipated the firestorm that it would ignite with its disclosure. Indeed, it appeared to have happened by chance when Lerner, appearing Friday at a conference held by the American Bar Association, responded to a question about the allegations by conservative groups.
The IRS’s subsequent conference call with reporters was clumsily handled. At one point, Lerner attempted to do arithmetic on the phone and blurted out: “I’m not good at math.” That admission was understandable, given that her training is as a lawyer, but it produced a quote that is likely to haunt the agency that handles the nation’s tax returns.
Nor did IRS officials appear to have prepared much for the questions they would get.
“The IRS did not acknowledge the use of names as part of the process earlier because the details were not initially known to senior leadership, and [the Treasury inspector general for tax administration] has been reviewing the situation,” IRS spokeswoman Michelle L. Eldridge said. “Their work is now far enough along that it was appropriate to address the issue when it came up during today’s tax conference.”
Of the 300 groups affected, the IRS said, 130 have had their tax-exempt status approved and 25 have withdrawn their applications.
The sensitivity arises in no small part because of the IRS’s history as an agency that presidents have used to intimidate, harass and punish their political enemies. Most infamous was Richard M. Nixon, but the practice went back at least as far as Franklin D. Roosevelt. Post-Watergate reforms made the IRS more independent and were designed to insulate it from politics.
“I call on the White House 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 against anyone, regardless of their political views,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said. “An apology won’t put this issue to rest.”