May 19, 2013

Heavy-handedness by the Internal Revenue Service is not confined to political groups seeking Section 501(c)(4) status [“Report details IRS scrutiny,” front page, May 13]. Many purely charitable groups experience exactly the same inordinate delays and demands for irrelevant information, particularly if they commit the sin of aspiring to provide relief in other countries. Such Section 501(c)(3) requests, of which I have handled a number in my practice as a tax attorney, are routinely selected for “development” and placed in a queue for assignment to IRS agents; the wait is now more than a year. An IRS Web page states that it is just now assigning applications received in March 2012. Assignment is, of course, just the start of the process, which can easily take another year.

Meanwhile, some 80,000 people have been killed in the civil war in Syria, and groups trying to provide legitimate humanitarian relief have to struggle with telling donors that it is not certain that their gifts will be tax-deductible. The human consequences vastly outweigh whatever harm was caused by holding up a few applications for Section 501(c)(4) status from groups that, in many cases, apparently did not meet the basic legal requirements.

James F. Warren, Washington

I was appalled by E.J. Dionne Jr.’s claim in his May 16 column, “Situational ethics,” that the real scandal relating to the IRS’s treatment of conservative groups was “that any groups involved in partisan electioneering are being granted” tax-exempt status under Section 501(c)(4). He got the scandal reversed. The same constitutional amendment that guarantees the freedom of press also guarantees the freedom of speech and the rights of the people to peaceably assemble and to petition their government.

As the power to tax is the power to destroy, the real scandal is that the tax law calls for denial of tax-exempt status based on a group’s exercise of these First Amendment rights.

William A. DeVan, Alexandria

The Post’s reference to the “The IRS targeting conservative opponents of Mr. Obama” in its May 17 editorial prejudged IRS actions [“He is not a crook”]. “Targeting . . . opponents” implies a Nixonian political motivation. It ignores the plausible alternative that the IRS actions were a response to a surge in applications from similar applicants that had an observed high rate of rejection. An ill-considered response, perhaps incompetent on the part of middle managers, but not “horrifying.” The Post editorial board writers admittedthat they “still don’t have a full picture of how the practice originated.” A less judgmental characterization of the IRS affair is in order until the facts are in.

Bob McDermott, Washington

The IRS targets some groups for special scrutiny. That is its job. Section 501(c)(4) of the IRS Code exempts from taxation nonprofit “civic leagues or organizations operated exclusively for the promotion of social welfare.” Applicants for such a status need to demonstrate that their “primary activity” is social welfare.

Is it not reasonable to assume that some politically active nonprofit groups might not have social welfare as their “primary activity”? Special scrutiny cannot be based on political bias, of course. But the IRS is obligated to ensure that all groups meet the same criteria and play by the same rules.

Paul Wee, Alexandria

The IRS is scrutinizing applications for 501(c)(4) status by organizations that it believes may adhere to reactionary, conservative positions. The Justice Department is seizing telephone records of reporters as part of a probe into possible disclosure of classified information. What are we to expect from an administration that holds people indefinitely without charging them with a crime, that denies suspects a speedy trial or even the right to effective counsel, that believes that it can order the assassination of U.S. citizens without benefit of judicial process?

Lawlessness breeds lawlessness. And disrespect for the fundamental rights of citizens in a free society breeds disrespect for the fundamental rights of citizens in a free society.

Michael L. Goldberg, Arlington