Judicial Watch Sues Internal Revenue Service For Records on Tea Party Audits
Lawsuit seeks records on audits of individuals and groups based on Tea Party applications for exempt status
(Washington, DC) – Judicial Watch announced it filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit against the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) seeking “any and all records” related to the selection of both individuals and organizations for audits based upon applications filed requesting nonprofit tax status. The lawsuit was filed in the District Court for the District of Columbia on (Judicial Watch v. Internal Revenue Service (No. 1:15-cv-00220)).
In May 2013, the Treasury Inspector for Tax Administration (TIGTA) released an audit report confirming that the IRS used “inappropriate” criteria to identify Tea Party groups and other conservative organizations that had expressed opposition to the Obama administration’s policy stances during the 2012 election cycle. In May 2014, Lois Lerner, the former Director of the IRS’ Exempt Organizations Unit, was held in contempt of Congress after refusing to testify at a congressional hearing about the agency’s actions. The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has declined to prosecute this contempt charge.
The Judicial Watch lawsuit was filed after the IRS failed to comply with two FOIA requests submitted on October 10, 2014. The first sought:
Any and all records concerning, regarding or relating to the selection of individuals for IRS audits based on information submitted in organizations’ applications for 501(c )(4) tax-exempt status, 501 (c)(4) donor lists, or IRS Form 990s. [Emphasis added]
The second request sought:
Any and all records concerning, regarding, or related to the selection of 501(c)(4) tax-exemption organizations for IRS audits based on information submitted in applications for tax-exempt status or IRS Form 990s. [Emphasis added]
In a letter dated November 14, 2014, acknowledging receipt of the FOIA requests, the IRS advised Judicial Watch that it had “extended the statutory response date to December 2, 2014.” The letter then informed Judicial Watch that the IRS “will still be unable to locate and consider release of the requested records by December 2, 2014.” The IRS informed Judicial Watch that it was extending its response dates in both FOIA requests into late February and advised Judicial Watch that if that was not satisfactory, “you may file suit.”
In its FOIA lawsuit, Judicial Watch is asking the Court to order the IRS to:
- Conduct a search for any and all records responsive to [Judicial Watch’s] FOIA requests.
- Produce, by a certain date, any and all non-exempt records responsive to [Judicial Watch’s] FOIA requests and a Vaughn index of any responsive records withheld under claim of exemption.
- Enjoin the [IRS] from continuing to withhold any and all non-exempt records responsive to the Plaintiff’s FOIA requests.
Judicial Watch filed a lawsuit for records about targeting of individuals for audit in November 2013. In that litigation, the IRS had refused to search any email systems, including the records of IRS official Lois Lerner, then-head of the Exempt Organizations.
In September 2014, a separate Judicial Watch FOIA lawsuit forced the release of documents detailing that the IRS sought, obtained and maintained the names of donors to Tea Party and other conservative groups. IRS officials acknowledged in these documents that “such information was not needed.” The documents also show that the donor names were being used for a “secret research project.”
The House Ways and Means Committee announced at a May 7, 2014, hearing that, after scores of conservative groups provided donor information “to the IRS, nearly one in ten donors were subject to audit.” In 2011, as many as five donors to the conservative 501 (c)(4) organization Freedom’s Watch were audited, according to the Wall Street Journal. Bradley Blakeman, Freedom’s Watch’s former president, also alleges he was “personally targeted” by the IRS.
Last week, Judicial Watch released a June 2011 Lois Lerner email that discloses that the IRS audited tax-exempt political groups using a separate investigation arm of the IRS, the Review of Operations Unit. Lerner wrote:
Also, we often use the ROO [Review of Operations Unit] to do initial research (.) Before starting audits–they don’t touch taxpayers, but can look at publicly available info about orgs.
In February 2014, then-Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee Dave Camp (R-MI) detailed improper IRS targeting of existing conservative groups:
Additionally, we now know that the IRS targeted not only right-leaning applicants, but also right-leaning groups that were already operating as 501(c)(4)s. At Washington, DC’s direction, dozens of groups operating as 501(c)(4)s were flagged for IRS surveillance, including monitoring of the groups’ activities, websites and any other publicly available information. Of these groups, 83 percent were right-leaning. And of the groups the IRS selected for audit, 100 percent were right-leaning.
“There is little doubt that the Obama IRS used Tea Party applications to do opposition research for punishing audits of individual citizens and groups opposed to President Obama’s policies,” said Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton. “And the Obama IRS is now in cover-up mode about this expanding scandal, simply ignoring FOIA law and refusing to search the emails of IRS officials like Lois Lerner. When it comes to hiding documents in violation of federal law, the Obama IRS seems to be trying to ‘one up’ the obstruction of Hillary Clinton and the State Department.”