What has the IRS been leaking on conservative groups?
posted at 10:11 pm on May 13, 2013 by Mary Katharine Ham
In the flood of stories popping up in the wake of the Obama administration’s IRS scandal, a couple suggest the IRS has been leaking information about conservatives and conservative groups in addition to putting them through the wringer for tax-exempt status.
First a story from ProPublica, which in the course of reporting on the explosion of 501c tax-exemption applications for politically active groups got some unexpected help from the IRS, in the form of confidential documents, as Ed mentioned earlier.
In response to a request for the applications for 67 different nonprofits last November, the Cincinnati office of the IRS sent ProPublica applications or documentation for 31 groups. Nine of those applications had not yet been approved—meaning they were not supposed to be made public. (We made six of those public, after redacting their financial information, deeming that they were newsworthy.)
Curiously, when ProPublica requested information on these groups, the IRS complied in a swift 13 days, and included the as-yet unapproved application of none other than prominent Karl-Rove-founded Crossroads GPS. Funny, that.
The IRS cover letter sent with the documents was from the Cincinnati office, and signed by Cindy Thomas, listed as the manager for Exempt Organizations Determinations, whom a biography for a Cincinnati Bar Association meeting in January says has worked for the IRS for 35 years. (Thomas often signed the cover letters of responses to ProPublica requests.) The cover letter listed an IRS employee named Sophia Brown as the person to contact for more information about the records. We tried to contact both Thomas and Brown today but were unable to reach them.
After receiving the unapproved applications, ProPublica tried to determine why they had been sent. In emails, IRS spokespeople said ProPublica shouldn’t have received them.
“It has come to our attention that you are in receipt of application materials of organizations that have not been recognized by the IRS as tax-exempt,” wrote one spokeswoman, Michelle Eldridge. She cited a law saying that publishing unauthorized returns or return information was a felony punishable by a fine of up to $5,000 and imprisonment of up to five years, or both.
This morning, the National Organization for Marriage sent the following e-mail:
The National Organization for Marriage (NOM) today renewed its demand that the Internal Revenue Service reveal the identity of the employee or employees responsible for stealing the organization’s confidential Form 990 tax return and leaking it to the Human Rights Campaign (HRC). At the time of the theft, the HRC had long-sought to know the identity of NOM’s major donors and its chief executive was a co-chair of President Obama’s reelection campaign. The Form 990 that was leaked to the HRC contained the identity of numerous major donors to the organization.
“There is little question that one or more employees at the IRS stole our confidential tax return and leaked it to our political enemies, in violation of federal law,” said Brian Brown, NOM’s president. “The only questions are who did it, and whether there was any knowledge or coordination between people in the White House, the Obama reelection campaign and the Human Rights Campaign. We and the American people deserve answers.”
In March 2012 the Human Rights Campaign and the Huffington Post published NOM’s Form 990 Schedule B from 2008 containing the identity of dozens of donors. The HRC claimed the tax return was provided by a ‘whistleblower.’ For months previous to the publication, the HRC had been demanding that NOM publicly release this confidential information even though federal law protects the identity of contributors to nonprofit groups. The publication of NOM’s tax return occurred just a few months after Joseph Solmonese, then president of the HRC, was appointed a national co-chair of the Obama reelection campaign. An analysis of the published documents shows that they could only have originated with the IRS.
Matt Lewis reported on the leak at the time, which culminated in HuffPo trying to make political hay of a Romney-affiliated donation to NOM. In 2012, NOM requested an investigation by the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, the same office that authored the draft report on the IRS’ targeting of conservative groups, which is to be released this week. They were interviewed, but never heard anything of an investigation’s process: “Nothing has come of the investigation if there is indeed one, and the agency has refused to answer any questions about the status of its examination,” NOM said in a press release.
Ben Domenech pointed out that the conservative think tank Texas Public Policy Foundation had its entire donor list leaked to a liberal Texas publication in 2012.
I’d sure like to hear more about this task force that focused on conservative groups, which both the Washington Post and the Free Beacon have referenced:
An attorney for a Tea Party group that believes the IRS targeted it for special scrutiny while applying for nonprofit status said an IRS analyst told him over a year ago that the agency had a “secret working group” devoted to investigating conservative organizations.
Attorney Dan Backer, whose client TheTeaParty.net has been trying to obtain tax-exempt status since 2010, said an IRS analyst mentioned the alleged working group during a phone conversation about one of Backer’s other client organizations.
“More than a year ago, one of these guys, really a slip of the tongue, [said] ‘Yeah we have this new working group that’s really looking at all these conservative organizations,’” Backer said. “And that’s when we knew it was gonna be a problem.”
WaPo calls it a “task force,” while reporting that the policy of investigating conservative groups went beyond the Cincinnati office in charge of tax-exemption applications and to Washington officials. Knock me over with a feather.
Perhaps what’s most surprising about this story is the surprise some seem to exhibit that a tax code as complex, burdensome, and far-reaching as ours is used in inappropriate ways to intimidate, chill speech, and punish certain people. Of course it is, and its very nature offers near-endless opportunities to do so! We’ll learn much more through the coming investigations of exactly how and how much it happens.
Update: Thanks to a commenter for reminding me of John McCormack’s story about the time Austan Goolsbee had an awful lot of information about the Kochs’ tax status in 2010. This is another instance of a TIGTA investigation with no public conclusion.