A new twist in the Republican case against the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of conservative groups reignited some old claims about the ongoing controversy on this week’s Sunday political shows.
Last week, House Republicans grilled IRS Commissioner John Koskinen about emails belonging to former IRS executive Lois Lerner that the agency now says were destroyed when her computer hard drive crashed. Republicans were incensed and said IRS’ explanation didn’t pass the smell test.
But during a debate June 22, 2014 on CNN’s State of the Union, Democratic strategist Donna Brazile said that the most recent Republican outrage is just a distraction.
"The only lie here is to lie that I think conservatives are telling and saying that somehow another this was a conspiracy against conservatives," Brazile said. "(The IRS) also investigated liberal groups, groups that have progressive in their name, groups that had Israel in its name. So the IRS was basically looking at everybody because they were trying to figure out where all of this fake, phony, secretive money was flowing in the last election cycle."
Brazile is echoing comments Democrats have made for a year. But is she right and the IRS was "basically looking at everybody"?
This question was essentially answered last year by the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, who investigated the IRS’s handling of tax exempt requests between 2010 and 2012.
The controversy starts with an IRS office in Cincinnati, Ohio, that is in charge of reviewing applications for tax-exempt status. Their process includes determining whether the organization is involved in political activities and whether that should impact their tax-exempt status. For example, nonprofit organizations that identify as a 501(c)(4) can engage in "limited political campaign intervention," as long as its not their primary function, meaning, in part, that they can advocate for issues but not for candidates.
In March 2010, this IRS office began looking at the tax exempt status of tea party groups. Ten tea party cases were identified and sent to a Washington office for greater scrutiny. IRS officials told investigators that "tea party" was used in the office as a catch-all phrase for groups engaging in political activity, and indeed not all 10 groups had "tea party" in their names.
In August 2010, a formal "Be on the Lookout" list was created instructing staff to flag applications of tea party groups. In June 2011, the list was expanded to include the words "Patriot" and "9/12 project," a movement started by conservative talk radio host Glenn Beck, and applications with missions to "make America a better place to live," statements that criticized how the country is being run, or groups focused on government spending, debt or taxes.
The investigation ultimately found the Cincinnati office used inappropriate criteria to single out certain cases. Over the course of two years, 298 total cases were sent to D.C. for greater scrutiny. According to the investigation, 72 of those groups had the name "tea party," 13 had "Patriot" and 11 had "9/12." The other 202 cases were listed as "other." In 160 of these cases, the application remained open between 206 and 1,138 days, while 108 were approved.
Democrats said 202 is a lot of "other." And later it came out that the word "progressive" was also used to flag applications on another IRS "Be on the Lookout" list.
Rep. Sandy Levin, D-Mich., the ranking member of the House Ways and Means committee asked Inspector General J. Russell George why he singled out all the mentions of conservative groups, but did not note in his investigation liberal groups were scrutinized as well.
George replied that the investigation wasn’t only looking at which groups were flagged. Progressive groups were on a different lookout list that "did not include instructions on how to refer cases that met the criteria." However, the lookout list for tea party groups did, and also resulted in delayed processing and unnecessary questioning of those groups, such as inquiries into their donors.
George also noted that while 16 groups with "progressive" in the name showed up among the 298 cases, that represented just 30 percent of all "progressive" applications. That is in stark contrast to groups with "tea party," "patriot," or "9/12" in their name, of which 100 percent saw their applications held up.
Finally, George said his investigation found "multiple sources of information corroborating the use of tea party and other related criteria ... we found no indication in any of these other materials that ‘progressives’ was a term used to refer cases for scrutiny for political campaign intervention."
So some progressive and liberal groups may have been flagged, and others may have ended up getting swept in the searches run by the Cincinnati office because their names had certain buzz words or phrases, but they didn’t get put through the ringer, at least on par with tea party groups.
Brazile said the IRS was "looking at everybody" including liberal groups and progressive groups. Yes, some progressive groups did have their tax-exempt status applications flagged as the IRS reviewed whether nonprofit groups were engaging in political activities.
But it wasn’t to the same degree as tea party and other conservative groups, nor did it result in the same actions. The list targeting tea party groups resulted in delayed processing that in some cases lasted almost three years and inquiries into their donors. Further, the inspector general found tea party groups were systematically singled out as part of an office-wide effort, while progressive groups were not.
Weighing all of this, we rate Brazile’s comments Half True.
After the Fact
Brazile responds to our fact-check
Added on June 24, 2014, 1:42 p.m.
After our fact-check published, Brazile responded via email. Here are her comments (edited for style):.
The accusation here is that the IRS targeted conservative political groups because of their conservative politics. The only way to answer that question is to compare how different groups with different politics get treated. The original IRS report -- and the firestorm of media coverage it generated -- talked about how conservative groups were identified in part by keyword search for further scrutiny, without any mention that progressive groups were identified the same way to be looked into further. Right there, that's a giant hole in the central thesis of the reporting.
There may be differences in how different groups were looked into, and those raise the question, why? Was it a political vendetta, as the ever-honorable Darrel Issa wants us to believe? Were Tea Party groups focused on by a special team inside the IRS because there was just a sudden flood of them in 2010? Or because they were aggressive about supporting particular candidates, or moving Koch money around in inappropriate ways? And were groups with "progressive" in the name not always focused on because the word "progressive" describes a lot of things -- a type of rummy game and an insurance company, to name a just couple. I don't know the answers, and I haven't seen much by way of answers in the reporting. But those questions are not tangential to the issue of whether there was political bias here, as the IG implied in his letter justifying the report that only looked at how conservative groups were treated. Those questions are central to the issue of bias. Until they have been answered, we don't know what we have here.
In fact, a few months after the story of the report broke, new documents came to light showing more of the extent of scrutiny of progressive groups. At the time, Alex Seitz-Wald described the landscape this way.
But now, almost two months later, we know that in fact the IRS targeted lots of different kinds of groups, not just conservative ones; that the only organizations whose tax-exempt statuses were actually denied were progressive ones; that many of the targeted conservative groups legitimately crossed the line; that the IG’s report was limited to only Tea Party groups at congressional Republicans’ request; and that the White House was in no way involved in the targeting and didn’t even know about it until shortly before the public did.
Needless to say, especially disturbing is the idea that Issa conveyed to the IG his wish that the investigation focus on conservative groups to the exclusion of progressive ones. The IG later said that initial report was inaccurate, but he didn't say what was inaccurate about it or offer any explanation of why his spokesperson would have said Issa told them to produce a one-sided report.
Republicans are trying to revive this story in advance of the 2014 election with no further scrutiny from a press corps that was at a minimum way too credulous when this story first broke. To fault me for only telling (the missing) half of the story in 10 seconds, while giving the larger media a pass for ignoring it in report after report, seems less than entirely evenhanded of you.