Members of Congress and White House officials have triggered audits of hundreds of tax-exempt groups this decade by lodging complaints with the Internal Revenue Service against their political foes.
The referrals range from citizen letters and newspaper articles to personal demands for investigations, according to documents reviewed by the Associated Press.
The White House once referred a constituent complaint about a group that had suggested presidential lawyer Vincent Foster had been murdered. Democratic lawmakers sought investigations of conservatives from the Heritage Foundation to Jerry Falwell. And Rep. Bill Archer (R-Tex.), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, which writes tax laws, sought an audit of a Buddhist temple in California after a Democratic fund-raiser featuring Vice President Gore was held there.
The IRS says less than 1 percent of the 6,000 to 10,000 audits of tax-exempt groups each year originate with complaints from lawmakers or the White House. The White House forwards about 1,300 constituent letters each year to the IRS, from complaints of wrongdoing to obscure tax questions.
Agency officials say audit decisions are based solely on evidence of wrongdoing, not on the political stature of the requesters or any positions taken by the group involved. Federal law generally prohibits tax-exempt groups from advocating the election or defeat of political candidates.
"We read our mail and deal with the facts appropriately. To ignore the mail is a dereliction of responsibility," said Marcus Owens, the IRS official who oversees tax-exempt organizations.