House Republicans have raised concerns that an Internal Revenue Service official may have unlawfully shared confidential taxpayer information with an attorney from the Federal Elections Commission.
Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) and Rep. Charles Boustany (R-La.) released e-mails on Wednesday suggesting that Lois Lerner, the embattled former head of the IRS’s exempt-organizations division, revealed to the lawyer that a conservative group had not been approved for tax-exempt status.
Federal law prohibits the IRS from releasing information about pending tax-exemption applications and groups that have been denied. However, the agency can and does release information about approved groups.
The FEC attorney wrote to Lerner on Feb. 3, 2009, saying: “When we spoke last July, you had told us that the American Future Fund had not received an exemption letter from the IRS. I understand that you are not able to give us any information on the group’s application if it is pending, but could you please tell me whether the IRS has since issued an exemption letter to the American Future Fund?”
Lerner, who worked at the FEC from 1986 to 1995, sought guidance on the request from other IRS employees. “What can we do to help the FEC here?” she asked in an e-mail. “I’m a little confused about his statement that I told him the org had not received exemption — it may be that they hadn’t mentioned it was a [501(c)(3)] and I told them the org didn’t show up on [the public IRS list of approved groups].”
The IRS said in a statement on Wednesday that Lerner and the FEC attorney appeared to be mindful of the law during their exchange. “The email attached to the letter indicates that both Ms. Lerner and the FEC attorney recognized the IRS obligation to protect taxpayer information and that neither person wanted the IRS to provide the FEC with anything other than publicly available information,” the agency said.
Lerner’s attorney, William W. Taylor, insisted on Thursday that his client had done nothing wrong. “She said the list of organizations granted exemptions does not involve that organization,” he said. “Anyone in the world could get that information.”
Asked whether Lerner had verified for the FEC lawyer that the group applied for tax-exempt status, Williams said: “She did not confirm or deny that there was an application.”
Republicans want more information about the exchanges to determine whether wrongdoing occurred. Camp and Boustany issued a letter to acting IRS chief Daniel Werfel on Wednesday requesting all communications between the IRS and FEC from 2008 through 2012.
“We have serious concerns that this e-mail exchange demonstrates a continued pattern of the IRS unlawfully sharing confidential taxpayer information with others outside the agency,” the congressmen said.
Rep. Candice Miller (R-Mich.), the chairman of the House committee that oversees the FEC, sent a similar request to the commission’s chair on Wednesday.
The IRS said it will respond to the request from Camp and Boustany, adding that it takes the protection of taxpayer information “very seriously.” The FEC declined to comment on the e-mails Wednesday.
Republicans say they are trying to determine whether the FEC targeted groups for extra scrutiny based on political ideology, a behavior that landed the IRS in trouble earlier this year and prompted Lerner to apologize in May.
Democrats described the e-mail controversy as an attempt to distract attention from their recent economic agenda. “Instead of working to replace the harmful sequester and promote job growth in this final week before they adjourn for five weeks, Republicans are throwing mud against the wall with hope that something will stick,” said Josh Drobnyk, a spokesman for the Democratic side of the House Ways and Means Committee.
Drobnyk said the communications released Wednesday don’t prove wrongdoing. “All that the referenced e-mails show is that an IRS official provided the FEC with information about organizations that is readily available to the public,” he said. “The FEC could have just as easily looked up online whether the organizations were tax-exempt.”
A 2008 complaint filed with the FEC alleged that the American Future Fund violated campaign-finance laws by engaging in activities that required the group to register as a political-action committee.
A lawyer for American Future Fund informed the commission in a June 2008 response letter that the group had applied for tax-exempt status. The e-mails released Wednesday indicate that the FEC lawyer contacted Lerner the next month to inquire about the status of the application.
Attorneys from the FEC’s general counsel’s office make recommendations about whether the commission should take action against groups for alleged violations.
The e-mails in question show that the FEC lawyer contacted Lerner about American Future Fund’s application status as the commission was preparing to make its final decision about the group. The panel ultimately voted to close the case in February 2009 without taking action.
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