The Internal Revenue Service has threatened to revoke the NAACP's tax-exempt status because the civil rights group's chairman, Julian Bond, "condemned the administration policies of George W. Bush" during a speech this summer, according to documents the group provided yesterday.
The NAACP, which is based in Baltimore and is the nation's oldest and largest civil rights organization, is incorporated under a tax-code section that prohibits participation in a political campaign. The group has long had a strained relationship with the Bush administration.
An IRS document dated Oct. 8 said that at the group's annual convention in Philadelphia in July, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People may have violated the restriction on political activity because it "distributed statements in opposition of George W. Bush for the office of presidency."
"Specifically in a speech made by Chairman Julian Bond, Mr. Bond condemned the administration policies of George W. Bush on education, the economy and the war in Iraq," said an IRS "information document request" sent with the letter.
The IRS asked for the cost of the convention, including a "listing of all expense," and the "names and addresses of each board member and indicate how each voted."
Experts on the IRS said it was unusual for the agency to send such a letter to a national organization. Jan Baran, a Republican tax and election lawyer, said the IRS has sent cautionary letters to churches but could not recall a similar recent probe.
"This shows that the IRS is increasing its monitoring of potentially improper political activities by officials of these groups," Baran said.
Bond said in a telephone interview that he found it "Nixonian" for the government to send the letter a month before the presidential election, and charged it was designed to intimidate the group from carrying out get-out-the-vote activities.
"They don't say I crossed any partisan lines -- they just said I criticized the president," Bond said. "I am shocked at this effort to silence our group just before the election."
IRS Commissioner Mark W. Everson said in a statement that "any suggestion that the IRS has tilted its audit activities for political purposes is repugnant and groundless."
"By law, the Internal Revenue Service cannot comment regarding any compliance activities regarding specific tax-exempt organizations," Everson said. "Law enforcement decisions at the IRS are made without regard to political considerations. The IRS follows strict procedures involving selection of tax-exempt organizations for audit and resolution of any complaints about such groups. Career civil servants, not political appointees, make these decisions in a fair and impartial manner."
IRS spokesman Terry Lemons said he did not know how often the agency sends such a letter. He said the length of the proceedings depends on individual circumstances.
The president had been invited to speak at the convention but turned the group down for the fourth consecutive year. His aides cited attacks by NAACP leaders, especially Bond.
Bush told Knight-Ridder Newspapers as the convention began that he "would describe my relationship with the current leadership as basically nonexistent."
"You've heard the rhetoric and the names they've called me," he said. He said he would reach out to individual members in other ways.
The NAACP is organized under section 501(c)(3) of the tax code, covering many charities, educational institutions and religious organizations. The IRS said the group is "prohibited from directly or indirectly participating or intervening in any political campaign." The IRS said the group cannot endorse a candidate, contribute to a campaign, raise money for a candidate, "distribute statements for or against a particular candidate," or become involved in activity "beneficial or detrimental to any candidate."
The IRS spent a decade investigating the Christian Coalition, founded by the religious broadcaster Pat Robertson. The group later prevailed over the IRS in a lawsuit. Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network paid an IRS fine for its involvement in his 1988 presidential campaign.
Bond, a former Georgia state senator, was a founder of the Atlanta student sit-in and anti-segregation organization in 1960. His convention speech mentioned Bush 13 times.
"The NAACP has always been nonpartisan, but that doesn't mean we're noncritical," he said. "As long as we've existed, whether Democrats or Republicans have occupied the White House, we've spoken truth to power." He said Republicans "practice racial division" but also criticized Democrats, saying that "when one party is shameless, the other party cannot afford to be spineless."
Staff writer James V. Grimaldi contributed to this report.