Judicial Watch: New Documents Show IRS HQ Control of Tea Party Targeting
Documents also Reveal Unusual Pressure from Key Democrat Senator to Target Conservatives
(Washington, DC) – Judicial Watch today released a new batch of Internal Revenue Service (IRS) documents revealing that its handling of Tea Party applications was directed out of the agency’s headquarters in Washington, DC. The documents also show extensive pressure on the IRS by Senator Carl Levin (D-MI) to shut down conservative-leaning tax-exempt organizations. The IRS’ emails by Lois Lerner detail her misleading explanations to investigators about the targeting of Tea Party organizations.
The documents came in response to an October 2013 Judicial Watch Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit filed after the agency refused to respond to four FOIA requests dating back to May 2013 (Judicial Watch, Inc. v. Internal Revenue Service (No. 1:13-cv-01559)).
One key email string from July 2012 confirms that IRS Tea Party scrutiny was directed from Washington, DC. 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.” Cindy Thomas is the former director of the IRS Exempt Organizations office in Cincinnati and Sharon Camarillo was a Senior Manager in their Los Angeles office. Grodnitzky, a top lawyer in the Exempt Organization Technical unit (EOT) in Washington, DC, responds:
EOT is working the Tea party applications in coordination with Cincy. We are developing a few applications here in DC 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.
The reference to Rob is believed to be Rob Choi, then-Director of Rulings and Agreements in IRS’s Washington, DC, headquarters.
Another email string from February – March 2010 includes a message from a California EO Determinations manager discussing a Tea Party application “currently being held in the Screening group.” The manager urges, “Please let ‘Washington’ know about this potentially embarrassing political case involving a ‘Tea Party’ organization. Recent media attention to this type of organization indicates to me that this is a ‘high profile’ case.” A co-worker responds: “I think sending it up here [DC] is a good idea given the potential for media interest.” As with Ben Rhodes’ Benghazi-related talking points email, Judicial Watch obtained a more complete version of this IRS email chain than was provided to a congressional committee.
The Judicial Watch documents also contain email correspondence to internal IRS investigators from Lerner, dated April 2, 2013, that tries to explain the “Be on the Lookout” (BOLO) criteria used to select organizations for screening and scrutiny:
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. . . “
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.
The IRS documents also include a presentation entitled “Heightened Awareness Issues” with a red and orange “Alert” symbol identifying the “emerging issues” that trigger scrutiny for organizations seeking tax-exempt status. Page six of the presentation focuses on the Tea Party organizations due, in part, to the fact that these groups had become a “Relevant Subject in Today’s Media.”
A series of letters between Senator Levin (D-MI), chairman of the Subcommittee on Investigations, and top IRS officials throughout 2012 discuss how to target conservative 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 were flexible enough to allow IRS agents to “prepare individualized questions and requests” for select 501(c)(4) organizations.
The newly released IRS documents contain several letters and emails revealing 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. In a July 30, 2012, letter, Levin singles out 12 groups he wants investigated for “political activity.” Of the groups – which include 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.
As the 2012 presidential election drew nearer, Levin sent a series of letters to the IRS intensifying his campaign against predominantly conservative nonprofit groups:
- September 27, 2012: Levin asks for copies of the 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.
- October 17, 2012: Miller informs 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 informs Levin that Americans for Prosperity and Patriot Majority have been approved, but the IRS has no records for Crossroads and Priorities USA.
- October 23, 2012: Levin writes to again 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 demands 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 seeks 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.
In perhaps the most revealing letter from the IRS to Levin, Miller on June 4, 2012, takes 16 pages to explain to the senator what IRS regulations and policies may and may not be used to evaluate political groups and assures him that the agency has considerable leeway in picking and choosing which groups would be subject to additional scrutiny:
There is no standard questionnaire used to obtain information about political activities. Although there is a template development letter that describes the general information on the case development process, the letter does not specify the information to be requested from any particular organization … Consequently, revenue agents prepare individualized questions and requests for documents relevant to the application. . .
A May 14, 2013, Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) report revealed that 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 that “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).” The illegal IRS reviews continued for more than 18 months and “delayed processing of targeted groups applications” preparing for the 2012 presidential election.
“These new documents show that officials in the IRS headquarters were responsible for the illegal delays of Tea Party applications,” stated 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.”
In mid-April, Judicial Watch released a batch of IRS documents (produced earlier in this litigation) revealing that Lerner had communicated with the Department of Justice about whether it was possible to criminally prosecute certain tax-exempt entities.