IRS Apologizes for Politically Motivated Tea Party Scrutiny Once Applauded By NY Times Editorial Page

May 13th, 2013 11:28 AM

Scandalous news that the Internal Revenue Service intimidated nonprofit opponents of the Obama administration made page 11 of Saturday's New York Times.

The IRS apology to Tea Party and other conservative organizations for politically motivated targeting of their nonprofit status was dealt with in mild fashion by reporter Jonathan Weisman, though not on the front page. "I.R.S. Apologizes to Tea Party Groups Over Audits of Applications for Tax Exemption." The same audits that were applauded last year by the Times' s editorial page. And a Monday front-page follow-up was topped with what even liberal journalists found a bizarre headline: "IRS Focus on Conservatives Gives GOP an Issue to Seize On." That's the story?

Weisman on Saturday let IRS official Lois Lerner issue a half-hearted "mistakes were made" apology and allowed her to downplay the scandal as a "bureaucratic mix-up." Staff members at a Cincinnati IRS office had singled out the terms “Tea Party” and “patriot” for special scrutiny, though Lerner insisted the practice was a harmless "shortcut."

(Media watchers of a certain age may remember the "innocent bureaucratic snafu" of the Clinton era, when the White House was caught accessing the FBI files of GOP appointees.)

The Internal Revenue Service apologized to Tea Party groups and other conservative organizations on Friday for what it now says were overzealous audits of their applications for tax-exempt status.

Lois Lerner, the director of the I.R.S. division that oversees tax-exempt groups, acknowledged that the agency had singled out nonprofit applicants with the terms “Tea Party” or “patriots” in their titles in an effort to respond to a surge in applications for tax-exempt status between 2010 and 2012.

She insisted that the move was not driven by politics, but she added, “We made some mistakes; some people didn’t use good judgment.”

“For that we’re apologetic,” she told reporters on a conference call.

Republicans seized on the acknowledgment, demanding more information and adding it to a growing list of steps by the Obama administration that they say prove political interference, from allegations of hiding the terrorist origins of the attack in Benghazi, Libya, to the demand for disclosure of donors to conservative “super PACs.”


The White House press secretary, Jay Carney, said the events in question happened while the I.R.S. was under the directorship of a Bush administration appointee and regardless, it is an agency run independently of White House oversight. He also said the matter is already under investigation by the agency’s inspector general.

Weisman briefly laid out the Tea Party's case:

To the conservative groups and their defenders, the acknowledgment confirmed their worst accusations. In early 2012, numerous Tea Party-affiliated groups came forward to charge the I.R.S. with harassment for demanding that they fill out extensive – and intrusive -- questionnaires before their tax-exempt applications could be approved. The questionnaires demanded detailed membership lists, donors, contact information, logs of activities and other information about the groups’ intentions.

Early 2012 was also the period when the Times was applauding the same treatment the IRS itself is now apologizing for, in a March 2012 editorial.

Taxpayers should be encouraged by complaints from Tea Party chapters applying for nonprofit tax status at being asked by the Internal Revenue Service to prove they are “social welfare” organizations and not the political activists they so obviously are.

Tea Party supporters claim they are being politically harassed with extensive I.R.S. questionnaires. But the service properly contends that it must ensure that these groups are “primarily” engaged in social welfare, not political campaigning, to merit tax exemption under section 501(c)(4) of the tax code.

By contrast, the Washington Post played the IRS apology above the fold on page one on Saturday, and also issued a lead editorial calling the move "appalling" and demanding a full accounting.

Times reporters have for years begged the IRS to investigate conservative nonprofit advocacy groups, as Michael Luo did in October 2010: "....several Republican-leaning nonprofit advocacy organizations, in particular, have begun over the last month to be more aggressive in their approach, explicitly asking for voters to cast their ballots for or against candidates. It remains to be seen whether the I.R.S. or the elections commission will scrutinize their actions more closely."

Weisman and fellow reporter Matthew Wald followed up on the IRS machinations on Monday's front page, framing the story as a partisan opportunity for Republicans, not an Obama administration running roughshod over its political opponents: "I.R.S. Focus on Conservatives Gives G.O.P. an Issue to Seize On."

The Internal Revenue Service’s special scrutiny of small-government groups applying for tax-exempt status went beyond keyword hunts for organizations with “Tea Party” or “Patriot” in their names, to a more overtly ideological search for applicants seeking to “make America a better place to live” or “criticize how the country is being run,” according to part of a draft audit by the inspector general that has been given to Capitol Hill.

The head of the division on tax-exempt organizations, Lois Lerner, was briefed on the effort in June 2011, seemingly contradicting her assertion on Friday that she learned of the effort from news reports. But the audit shows that she seemed to work hard to rein in the focus on conservatives and change it to a look at any political advocacy group of any stripe.

The Times didn't exactly sound eager to jump on a scandal advantageous to the GOP.

The new information will only add to the criticism that has emerged since Ms. Lerner apologized to Tea Party and other conservative groups on Friday for unwarranted scrutiny. The full audit by the Treasury Department’s inspector general for tax administration is set to be released this week.

House Republicans have vowed to begin their own hearings and investigations. And Republicans fanned out on the political talk shows on Sunday to express outrage that is only likely to grow. Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine and a prominent moderate, said on CNN that the singling out of conservative groups was “absolutely chilling.

Since last year’s elections, Republicans in Congress have struggled for traction on their legislative efforts, torn between conservatives who drove the agenda after their 2010 landslide and new voices counseling a shift in course to reflect President Obama’s re-election and the loss of Republican seats in the House and the Senate.

But the accusations of I.R.S. abuse are sure to fuel an effort that appears to be uniting dispirited Republicans and their conservative political base: investigating Mr. Obama and his administration. Republicans are pushing a portrayal of an administration overreaching its authority and punishing its enemies.

The Times kept the focus on potential Republican partisan gain, as if that was the main issue involved, not the IRS intimidation itself.

Republicans got little political traction last year when they highlighted the “Fast and Furious” operation by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, in which guns that were supposed to be tracked by the agency were instead lost to drug cartels in Mexico.

But the Republican focus on attacks on United States officials in Benghazi, Libya, got new life last week when Gregory Hicks, a State Department critic of the military’s response, told a House committee that he had been effectively demoted after lodging his criticism.

Congressional Republicans are also showcasing complaints from businesses on a near-daily basis about the cost of the president’s signature health care law as it prepares to go into full effect in 2014.