New documents obtained by Washington watchdog Judicial Watch show that while the feds were directing the Internal Revenue Service’s campaign to target tea-party and conservative groups, a key Democrat senator was pressing the federal agency to shut down political opposition to President Obama.
The details are being uncovered in a new batch of documents from the IRS obtained by Judicial Watch under a Freedom of Information Act request.
The organization said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., exposed his intent to attack tea-party and conservative organizations in a series of letters exchanged with the IRS.
The feared federal tax agency has been under fire for its attacks on conservative, Christian and tea-party groups ever since it voluntarily revealed the campaign just ahead of a report from an inspector general.
The allegations are that the IRS tax-exempt department deliberately delayed and obstructed the applications of hundreds of groups that oppose Barack Obama’s policies just ahead of the 2012 presidential election.
Among other things, the groups were ordered to reveal the content of their prayers and promise not to protest against Planned Parenthood abortion businesses.
Levin, the chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Investigations, and top IRS officials discussed how to target groups the senator claimed were “engaged in political activities.” In response to a Levin March 30 letter citing the “urgency of the issue,” then-Deputy Commissioner Steven Miller assured the senator that IRS regulations would allow agents to “prepare individualized questions and requests” for applicant organizations.
The documents, Judicial Watch said, show “an intense effort by Levin and IRS officials to determine what, if any, existing IRS policies could be used to revoke the nonprofit exemptions of active conservative groups and deny exemptions to new applicants.”
Judicial Watch said that in a July 30, 2012, letter, Levin singles out 12 groups he wants investigated for “political activity.” Of the groups – which included the Club for Growth, Americans for Tax Reform, the 60 Plus Association and the Susan B. Anthony List – only one, Priorities USA, is “notably left-leaning.”
When the 2012 election neared, Judicial Watch said Levin sent a series of letters to the IRS, “intensifying his campaign against predominantly conservative nonprofit groups.”
On Sept. 27, 2012, he wanted copies of answers to IRS exemption application question 15 – a question about planned political expenditures – from four specific groups: Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies, Priorities USA, Americans for Prosperity and Patriot Majority USA.
Then on Oct. 17, Miller told Levin, “As discussed in our previous responses dated June 4, 2012, and August 24, 2012, the IRS cannot legally disclose whether the organizations on your list have applied for tax exemptions unless and until such application is approved.”
Miller, however, then informed Levin that Americans for Prosperity and Patriot Majority had been approved, but the IRS has no records for Crossroads and Priorities USA, Judicial Watch said.
On Oct. 23, Levin wrote again to express his dissatisfaction with the IRS handling of “social welfare” 501(c)(4) organizations, insisting that IRS guidance “misinterprets the law” by allowing any political activity. He again demanded an answer as to whether the four organizations he listed in his previous letter were primarily engaged in the promotion of social welfare. He also sought copies of tax exempt revocation letters sent due to c4 political activities, as well as statistics on how many c4s have been notified that they may be in violation due to political activities, Judicial Watch reported.
As for the repeated IRS claims that the targeting of socially conservative organizations was done by a few rogue agents in a Cincinnati office, Judicial Watch said the new documentation indicates otherwise.
The documents, which came in response to an October 2013 Judicial Watch Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed after the agency refused to respond to four FOIA requests dating back to May 2013, included a “key email string” from July 2012.
The emails confirm that IRS tea-party scrutiny was directed from Washington, D.C., Judicial Watch said.
“On July 6, 2010, Holly Paz (the former director of the IRS Rulings and Agreements Division and current manager of Exempt Organizations Guidance) asks IRS lawyer Steven Grodnitzky ‘to let Cindy and Sharon know how we have been handling tea-party applications in the last few months,'” Judicial Watch said.
Cindy Thomas is the former director of the IRS Exempt Organizations office in Cincinnati, and Sharon Camarillo was a senior manager in the Los Angeles office.
Grodnitzky, a top lawyer in the Exempt Organization Technical unit (EOT) in Washington, D.C., responded:
EOT is working the tea-party applications in coordination with Cincy. We are developing a few applications here in D.C. and providing copies of our development letters with the agent to use as examples in the development of their cases. Chip Hull [another lawyer in IRS headquarters] is working these cases in EOT and working with the agent in Cincy, so any communication should include him as well. Because the tea-party applications are the subject of an SCR [Sensitive Case Report], we cannot resolve any of the cases without coordinating with Rob.
Judicial Watch said “Rob” apparently refers to Rob Choi, then-director of rulings and agreements in the IRS Washington, D.C., headquarters.
The organization cited another email string from February and March 2010.
The string included a message from a California EO determinations manager discussing a tea-party application “currently being held in the screening group.”
“Please let ‘Washington’ know about this potentially embarrassing political case involving a ‘tea-party’ organization,” the manager wrote. “Recent media attention to this type of organization indicates to me that this is a ‘high profile’ case.”
Also among the documents was correspondence to internal IRS investigators from Lois Lerner, the former director of the Tax Exempt Organizations office who was found in contempt of Congress for refusing to testify.
“Because the BOLO only contained a brief reference to ‘Organizations involved with the tea party movement applying for exemption under 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4)’ in June 2011, the EO Determinations manager asked the manager of the screening group, John Shafer [IRS Cincinnati field office manager], what criteria were being used to label cases as ‘tea party’ cases. (‘Do the applications specify/state ‘ tea party’? If not, how do we know applicant is involved with the tea party movement?’) The screening group manager asked his employees how they were applying the BOLO’s short–hand reference to ‘tea party.’ His employees responded that they were including organizations meeting any of the following criteria as falling within the BOLO’s reference to ‘tea party’ organizations: ‘1. ‘Tea Party’, ‘Patriots’ or ‘9/12 Project’ is referenced in the case file. 2. Issues include government spending, government debt and taxes. 3. Educate the public through advocacy/legislative activities to make America a better place to live. 4. Statements in the case file that are critical of the how the country is being run,” the document said.
“So, we believe we have provided information that shows that no one in EO ‘developed’ the criteria. Rather, staff used their own interpretations of the brief reference to ‘organizations involved with the tea party movement,’ which was what was on the BOLO list.”
“Lerner omits that her office was ‘developing’ the applications for all tea-party groups,” Judicial Watch said.
“These new documents show that officials in the IRS headquarters were responsible for the illegal delays of tea-party applications,” said Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton. “It is disturbing to see Lois Lerner mislead the IRS’ internal investigators about her office’s tea-party targeting. These documents also confirm the unprecedented pressure from congressional Democrats to go after President Obama’s political opponents. The IRS scandal has now ensnared Congress.”
A report on May 14, 2013, from the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration , or TIGTA, found the IRS had singled out groups with conservative-sounding terms such as “patriot” and “tea party” in their titles when applying for tax-exempt status. The TIGTA probe determined: “Early in Calendar Year 2010, the IRS began using inappropriate criteria to identify organizations applying for tax-exempt status (e.g., lists of past and future donors).”
Judicial Watch said the “illegal IRS reviews continued for more than 18 months and ‘delayed processing of targeted groups applications’ preparing for the 2012 presidential election.”