New details about the Internal Revenue Service’s heightened scrutiny of conservative organizations emerged Tuesday, with leaders of some groups telling lawmakers that agency officials demanded they curtail their activities if they wanted to win tax-exempt status.
The testimony before the House Ways and Means Committee came as IRS spokesman Bruce Friedland said Tuesday that 236 tax-exempt 501(c)(4) applications pending before the agency remain unresolved after more than 200 days.
During the hearing Tuesday, a half-dozen conservative activists said the IRS had subjected their groups to intrusive demands in the course of their quest to obtain favorable tax treatment.
Susan Martinek, president of the Coalition for Life of Iowa, testified that an IRS agent told her in June 2009 that she needed to send a letter with her entire board’s signatures “stating under penalty of perjury we would not picket, protest or organize groups to picket, protest outside of Planned Parenthood.”
While the group eventually won IRS approval, Martinek said, she did not understand why the agency would make such a demand: “As Christians we knew we needed to pray for a better solution to unplanned pregnancy than abortion. Why not at the source?”
Kevin Kookogey, whose group Linchpins of Liberty teaches conservative philosophy to high school and college students, said he was asked to provide the names of people he was training and what he was teaching them.
“Considering that the mission of my organization is devoted to mentoring young people, some of whom are minors, can you imagine the reaction of my students’ parents if I were to surrender the names of their children to the IRS?” asked Kookogey, who said he is still waiting for a ruling on his group’s application after 29 months.
GOP lawmakers decried the IRS agents’ behavior throughout the hearing. Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich), the committee’s chairman, said that even beyond the groups that drew IRS attention for having “tea party,” “patriot” or “9/12” in their name, “Americans were affected by the culture of political intimidation and discrimination that was cultivated by this targeting.”
Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Tex.) said the inquiries suggested the country had passed a dangerous tipping point. “Did either of you believe this could happen in America?” he asked some of the witnesses.
“Honestly, I feel like our country has turned a corner into tyranny,” replied Dianne Belsom, president of the Laurens County Tea Party in South Carolina.
Several Democrats on the panel also said the behavior the witnesses described had crossed a line, although their language was more muted. Rep. Sander M. Levin (D-Mich.) said that while he suspected that he and Martinek had different views on Planned Parenthood, the demand that her group stop protesting at abortion clinics “should not have been asked.”
Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) said that the agency was “inept” and “stupid” in its handling of the applications but that the groups’ leaders should keep in mind that the federal government has an obligation to scrutinize political organizations seeking tax-exempt status.
“If you didn’t come in and ask for this tax break, you would have never had a question asked of you,” McDermott said. “You are immersed in some of the most controversial political issues in the country, and you are asking the American people to pay for that activity.”
Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) shot back that it was unfair to make that critique of conservatives given the fact there is “no evidence” liberal groups were subjected to a similar level of IRS scrutiny.
“You’re to blame, I guess is the message here,” he said, prompting cheers from some in the audience.
Within a couple of hours the National Republican Congressional Committee seized upon McDermott’s remarks, sending out an e-mail asking whether Democrats such as Rep. Ron Barber (Ariz.) would “condemn his fellow Democrat’s despicable comments.”
“What Ron Barber’s Democrat colleague said today was inexcusable,” said NRCC communications director Andrea Bozek. “The victims of the IRS scandal shouldn’t be blamed for the actions of a scandal-ridden agency.”
Lawmakers are still trying to gauge the targeting program’s ongoing impact. During a subcommittee hearing Monday, Rep. Kevin Yoder (R-Kan.) had asked acting IRS commissioner Daniel Werfel how many applications were still pending for nonprofit 501(c)(4) status by targeted groups.
Werfel said 132 applications had been pending for at least 120 days, adding that he would provide additional details later. By Tuesday, the IRS had updated the figure to 236 and clarified that these applications had been under review for more than 200 days.
“Despite IRS claims that they have fixed the problem, today groups of Americans are still being unfairly scrutinized based upon their political or religious beliefs,” Yoder said in a statement Tuesday. “. . . It’s time to close this shameful chapter in IRS history.”