The Conversation

IRS Excuse for Targeting Tea Party Groups Debunked

For more than a month, the I.R.S. has been offering an excuse for its targeting of Tea Party groups, claiming it was deluged with new applications. But data shows that excuse is completely false, leading to further questions about what really motivated the added scrutiny and why the I.R.S. has been making this misleading claim.

During a conference call run by I.R.S. division director Lois Lerner, she claimed there was no bad intent in the targeting of Tea Party groups, just bad judgment. A transcript of her remarks shows she claimed "between 2010 and 2012 we started seeing a very big uptick in the number of 501(c)(4) applications we were receiving and many of these organizations applying more than doubled, about 1500 in 2010 and over 3400 in 2012. So we saw a big increase in these kind of applications..." It was this increase, Lerner claimed, which made further scrutiny of similar groups necessary.

But the claim that an increase in applications led to the additional scrutiny is false. As Garance Franke-Ruta notes today, in 2010 when the scrutiny began the number of 501(c)(4) applications was down from the previous year. The applications did double during the next two years, but that was during the time no Tea Party groups were approved. Contrary to Lois Lerner, the increase in applications followed the heightened scrutiny, therefore it can not be used to explain it.

The claim that an increased number of applications led to increased scrutiny for Tea Party groups did not begin last Friday with Lerner's conference call. The IG report contains an appendix which is the Department of Treasury's written response to the report. This three page letter dated April 8, 2013 makes the same claim in it's 3rd paragraph [Emphasis added]:

We believe it is important to put this matter into context. Starting in 2010, Exempt Organizations (EO) observed a significant increase in the number of section 501(c)(3) and section 501(c)(4) applications from organizations that appeared to be, or planned to be, engaged in political campaign activity. Between 2008 and 2012, the number of applications for section 501(c)(4) status more than doubled.

Though the time frame is slightly different (2008-2012 vs. 2010-2012) it is the same misleading claim. This excuse does not hold up to scrutiny, which means there must be another explanation why the I.R.S. singled out these conservative groups.

As has been noted elsewhere, the event which initiated the additional scrutiny by the I.R.S. is blanked out in the IG report. All we know is that it was an email sent in late February. Who sent the email and why has not been explained.

Update: I hadn't realized it but Lois Lerner's comments last Friday were supposedly a "spontaneous reaction to an unknown audience member." That's completely false of course. In reality the whole thing appears to have been carefully stage-managed (see the NRO link for more). It's just one more thing that suggests this claim about a doubling of applications wasn't an accident but was done for media consumption.


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