The IRS has already apologized for targeting for extra scrutiny groups with “tea party,” “patriot,” and “9/12” in their names, but the scrutiny of the agency over that scandal is just getting started. According to an inspector general report due out this week, the agency targeted more groups, thanks to an ever-changing set of criteria by which it would vet “social welfare” organizations applying for 501(c)(4) tax-exempt status under the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling. As those criteria evolved over two years, they at one point in June 2011 included groups focusing on certain issues, including “Government spending, Government debt, or taxes; Education of the public via advocacy/lobbying to ‘make America a better place to live,’ ” Reuters reports.
The 501(c)(4) groups are allowed to do some politicking, but that can’t be their primary focus. “That social-welfare activity can include lobbying and advocating for issues and legislation, but not outright political-campaign activity,” The Wall Street Journal explains. “But some of the rules leave room for IRS officials to make judgment calls and probe individual groups for further information.”
After Lois Lerner, who runs the IRS division that oversees tax-exempt organizations, heard about the keyword and issue-based criteria, “she raised an objection, and the agency adopted a more general set of standards,” the Washington Post reports. Six months later, on Jan. 15, 2012, the IRS decided to focus on “political action type organizations involved in limiting/expanding Government, educating on the Constitution and Bill of Rights, social economic reform movement.”
The agency once again rewrote its criteria for investigating 501 (c)(4) groups on May 17, 2012, to focus on “organizations with indicators of significant amounts of political campaign intervention (raising questions as to exempt purpose and/or excess private benefit.),” the Post reports.
Naturally, Republican guests on the Sunday talk shows had some strong opinions on the scandal, with Sen. Susan Collins of Maine calling it “absolutely chilling” on CNN’s State of the Union. Rep. Darrell Issa said on Meet the Press the IRS’s “mea culpa’s not an honest one,” and called for “accountability for the people who did it,” and “accountability for people who are telling lies about it being done.” With the official IG report due out later this week, and House republicans promising an investigation, we can be sure this won’t be the last round of such criticism.