May 10th, 2013
12:53 PM ET
10 years ago

Following tea party complaints, IRS admits 'mistakes'

(CNN) - Responding to a flurry of complaints from conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status, the Internal Revenue Service admitted Friday it made "mistakes" in the last few years while trying to process those requests.

Multiple tea party groups reported significant delays and excessive questioning from IRS officials while trying to obtain 501(c)(4) status.

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While the groups and conservative members of Congress cried foul, the agency strongly contests the notion that groups were targeted out of political bias.

Lois Lerner, director of tax exempt organizations for the IRS, said on a conference call Friday that the IRS office in Cincinnati that handles most applications for 501(c)(4) status had seen a strong uptick in applications of 1,500 to 3,400 between 2010 and 2012.

Any applications that were incomplete, lacked consistent information, or indicated a group would be involved with some type of advocacy, were filed into a certain group for further review.

However, approximately 75 of the 300 groups that were filed for further review were simply filed because they had the names "tea party" and "patriot," Lerner said.

"They did pick the cases by names and that's absolutely inappropriate and not the way we should do things," she said, though stressing it was done as a "shortcut," not out of "political bias."

Lerner did not disclose what the remainder of the 300 groups had in common, or whether they had any political affiliations. She repeated that they ranged across a "broad spectrum" of groups and did not release any names.

"It was an error in judgment and it wasn't appropriate," Lerner said. "But that's what they did."

The AP first reported Friday's IRS admission, when Lerner answered a question about the issue at a conference in Washington. The IRS later held the conference call with reporters.

Groups applying for tax exempt status are allowed to do advocacy, so long as their primary activities are dedicated to "social welfare," according to IRS rules. When an advocacy case is filed for further review, the IRS tries to determine if the group plans on sticking by that calculus.

However, when the IRS employees were seeking to make that determination, Lerner admitted they went too far.

"Some of the letters were far too broad," she said, adding that some asked for donor lists. "When this came to my attention, we took some action to try and undo some of these things."

See a sampling of a questionnaire (provided by The American Center for Law and Justice).

When Eric Wilson, executive director for the Kentucky 9/12 Project, filed for not-for-profit status in December 2010, he was told he'd receive a response within 90 days. What he received instead was an inquiry with a total of 88 questions asking for what he describes as "far reaching information."

They wanted membership lists and detailed information about directors of the group, such as their private activities outside the organization, he said. They also requested copies of pages on their website and social media accounts, such as Facebook and Twitter.

To comply with every request, Wilson said it would have required 5,000 printed pages. "They were trying to bury us in time and money," he said.

Wilson responded with a one-page letter, saying the questionnaire was beyond normal requests and they would not comply. He started noticing posts online and through contact with like-minded conservative groups that they were receiving similar questions from the IRS.

Last month, on April 1, Wilson finally received his approval letter from the agency in a 200-word letter, simply stating they had been designated a 501(c)(4) organization with no explanation for the delay.

While Wilson described the IRS' comments today as a "victory for free speech and liberty," he still wants more questions answered and called for further review.

The issue began getting national attention, with members of Congress weighing in and legal groups fighting on behalf of the conservative groups. In March 2012, a dozen U.S. senators led by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, sent a letter to IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman asking for more information about this situation.

The American Center for Law and Justice in Washington represented 27 of the groups and lobbied for action to be taken on the matter.

"The IRS admission and apology should have come much sooner," Jay Sekulow, Chief Counsel of the ACLJ, said. "It took the threat of legal action to get the IRS to make this admission. And while many of the organizations we represent have finally been granted tax-exempt status, we demand the IRS to immediately approve the pending applications for the remainder of our clients."

Tom Zawistowski, executive director for the Portage County TEA Party who helped lead the then-Ohio Liberty Council, also experienced difficulty for three years and worked with the ACLJ. He said Friday the apology was "appropriate."

"I think it was without doubt wrong. We knew it was wrong in the beginning," he said. "They had no right, whatsoever, right to deny us tax exempt status that 501(c)(4) groups routinely received."

Zawistowski said he has a four-inch thick binder of stuff they were asked to send, including speakers lists and printouts of every page from its website and Facebook page, every tweet.

Click here and here to see the questionnaire sent to Zawistowski.

He also refused to comply. Zawistowski applied for the status in June 2009 and received final confirmation on December 22, 2012.

In an appearance before the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Oversight in March 2012, Shulman was asked about the controversy. Rep. Charles Boustany, R-Louisiana, asked if it was true the IRS was politically targeting conservative groups.

"Yes, I can give you assurances. We pride ourselves in being a non-political, non-partisan organization," he said. "There is absolutely no targeting. This is the kind of back and forth that happens when people apply for 501(c)(4) status."

Reaction to the IRS' admission was swift. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor announced Friday the House would investigate the matter, saying in a statement "the IRS cannot target or intimidate any individual or organization based on their political beliefs."

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell called on the White House to conduct "a transparent, government-wide review" to ensure similar practices weren't being carried out at other agencies.

McConnell, who called an apology from the IRS insufficient, deemed the IRS tactics "political thuggery" with no place in American politics.

"Now more than ever we need to send a clear message to the Obama Administration that the First Amendment is non-negotiable, and that apologies after an election year are not an sufficient response to what we now know took place at the IRS," McConnell wrote in a statement.

The left-leaning American Civil Liberties Union also called out the IRS.

"Even the appearance of playing partisan politics with the tax code is about as constitutionally troubling as it gets," Michael Macleod-Ball, chief of staff at the ACLU's Washington legislative office, said in a statement. "With the recent push to grant federal agencies broad new powers to mandate donor disclosure for advocacy groups on both the left and the right, there must be clear checks in place to prevent this from ever happening again."

Tea Party groups were similarly incensed. The Tea Party Patriots, one of the nation's largest, rejected an IRS apology and insisted on resignation from the officials involved in the targeting.

"The IRS has demonstrated the most disturbing, illegal and outrageous abuse of government power," wrote Jenny Beth Martin, national coordinator for Tea Party Patriots, in a statement. "This deliberate targeting and harassment of tea party groups reaches a new low in illegal government activity and overreach."

Meanwhile, two Republicans on the House Oversight Committee, Chairman Darrell Issa and Rep. Jim Jordan, wrote in a joint statement, "The fact that Americans were targeted by the IRS because of their political beliefs is unconscionable. The Committee will aggressively follow up on the IG report and hold responsible officials accountable for this political retaliation."

The Democratic chairman of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, Sen. Carl Levin, also said an investigation into the matter was required.

Treasury Spokesman Anthony Coley said his department would "fully support the IRS Inspector General's review of this matter."

"The Treasury Department expects all individuals and organizations to be treated fairly by the IRS. Anything less is inappropriate and unacceptable," Coley said.

Jay Carney, President Barack Obama's press secretary, said Friday the IRS' actions were "inappropriate."

"We would fully expect the investigation to be thorough and for corrections to be made in a case like this," Carney continued. "And I believe the IRS has addressed that and has taken some action, and there's an investigation ongoing."

Of the 300 groups that were filed for further review, 130 have been approved, 180 are still in process and about 25 are under review, Lerner said.

Asked when the IRS began looking into complaints, Lerner said she could not give a time frame. Pressed further on when senior IRS officials became aware of the situation, Lerner said she "did not feel comfortable answering."

Lerner said they have implemented changes to prevent similar mistakes in the future. When asked if there has been disciplinary action, Lerner said "No." Attempting to clarify later, she said she meant to say she wouldn't comment on personnel issues.

Filed under: IRS • Tea Party
soundoff (312 Responses)
  1. tim

    The posts here buy libs shows they are a bunch of mental midgets with mental BO.The only way they could say less is to talk longer.

    May 11, 2013 02:32 pm at 2:32 pm |
  2. jowl

    Discrimination against whites, even more proof. Liberals have been calling people racists are for throwing resumes away based on name for years.

    May 11, 2013 02:38 pm at 2:38 pm |
  3. steveNJXN

    This is nothing new- just the targets have changed. Under the Bushies, it was "liberal" groups like an Episcopal Church in Pasadena.
    Then again, if "social welfare" groups can actively engage in politics, maybe the IRS has a point.

    May 11, 2013 02:41 pm at 2:41 pm |
  4. Frank Maikisch

    The IRS has far too much power. Using tactics that belong in Communist China, they can take away property, vehicles, & monies owned outright by the common citizen. All for alleging wrongdoing, without even filling charges. I know as it is happening to me. I am by no means an extremist, but for those who are under the illusion we live in a democracy, wake up.

    May 11, 2013 02:47 pm at 2:47 pm |
  5. Sean

    I would flag any applications with the name "Tea Party" or "Patriot" too. These groups came into prominence when we gained a black president. As far as I'm concerned they are the modern day KKK and should be thoroughly scrutinized.

    May 11, 2013 02:49 pm at 2:49 pm |
  6. Suur Kurat

    The IRS selects and classifies tax returns pursuant to specific instructions in the IRS manual. Only the Commissioner of the IRS, or his/her delegate, can approve changes to the procedures.

    Only top IRS officials could have given instructions to the classifiers to target conservative organizations. A lower ranking official could not.

    Lois Lerner sounded absolutely inept during the interview. She appeared to be a ypical IRS employee.

    May 11, 2013 02:52 pm at 2:52 pm |
  7. Truth

    Anyone against Whites, is against America, and against the world. Our power will not be willingly handed down, nor can it be taken. You are either with us, or against us, and god help you if you are against us. History has clearly shown just how efficiently we handle our enemies.

    May 11, 2013 02:54 pm at 2:54 pm |
  8. koko

    This is bad, but holding up nominations because of their political ideology is bad? Interesting.

    May 11, 2013 02:55 pm at 2:55 pm |
  9. Just

    Not so slowly, our government is going hired world.

    May 11, 2013 02:55 pm at 2:55 pm |
  10. Dude in Colorado

    I think there has to be a deep and probing investigation into how this happened and why, absolutely... As well as full disclosure from the Tea Party / Patriot groups as to why their political organizations really deserve tax exempt status.

    May 11, 2013 02:56 pm at 2:56 pm |
  11. Just

    Third world that is

    May 11, 2013 02:56 pm at 2:56 pm |
  12. VCN

    About time some one is wake up! Last month I got a letter from IRS, say that I miss taxes in 2011, which I know I didn't owed taxes money , I'm in a bad sharp cause of this mistake. I really hope this mistake can be taking care of quick!!

    May 11, 2013 02:57 pm at 2:57 pm |
  13. Veg


    "Nazi-esque"? Is this really the kind of thing that made the Nazis so infamous? I seem to recall, oh, I dunno, a few million state-sanctioned murders and a campaign to dominate the entire planet for 1000 years. I guess I missed the section of the history textbook that went over their rogue field office in Hamburg asking too many questions to groups seeking tax-exempt status.

    May 11, 2013 02:58 pm at 2:58 pm |
  14. glorydays

    BOTH political parties care more about their own future than the future of the country. We need a new start.

    May 11, 2013 02:59 pm at 2:59 pm |
  15. Mike in SA

    Flagging people for review just because they advocate for "the other side" is nothing short of government sanctioned voter intimidation and people should be jailed for this. That they targeted groups with names that contained "tea party" and "patriot" but not "progress" or "forward" shows that this was purely a partisan witch hunt designed to keep those who advocated for one side from being able to effectively do so.

    May 11, 2013 03:07 pm at 3:07 pm |
  16. jake

    I think all un-American groups – like the tea party – deserve extra scrutiny by all branches of the government..........

    May 11, 2013 03:08 pm at 3:08 pm |
  17. jkflipflop

    So what this really boils down to is that there was one lazy schmuck in charge of getting all this information, and they chose to use a "shortcut" instead of actually doing their job. Take pride in your work FFS.

    May 11, 2013 03:08 pm at 3:08 pm |
  18. brian

    The IRS can be inconsistent. I have seen cab drivers go to jail for not reporting all their 50 cent tips while a businessman who owes millions can bargain his tax bill down to pennies on the dollar. Also, one of Nixon's "tricks" was to use the IRS to harass his political opponents.

    May 11, 2013 03:09 pm at 3:09 pm |
  19. Dean

    JP – Hillary isn't even minimally qualified to be president. And is too corrupt to hold any office.

    May 11, 2013 03:17 pm at 3:17 pm |
  20. keith

    Unfortunately this is the same response that is given to those that speak against the us government. Homes searched at gun point until something is found to silence voices behind prison walls. Years in jail over small things......max sentances for those that speak of crimes.

    May 11, 2013 03:19 pm at 3:19 pm |
  21. Bob

    There does not appear to be any connection between the President and this IRS problem. Sounds like some low- to mid-level employees blew it. Until someone can prove some sinister connection between the President and this then this is not a big story.

    May 11, 2013 03:22 pm at 3:22 pm |
  22. GaryOwen27

    Nice going IRS, your not so bad after all.

    May 11, 2013 03:23 pm at 3:23 pm |
  23. bigmountain1969

    Someone MUST be held accountable for this, they MUST be punished and policies MUST be implemented to prevent this abuse of power. With the IRS being the collectors for the new health care policies, I truly see people having their property seized if they don't carry insurance and don't pay the "fine". If you don't pay by them seizing your income tax refund, how else will they force you to pay for the health care?

    May 11, 2013 03:30 pm at 3:30 pm |
  24. eviltaxpayer

    JP- Its about time, there are so many absolutely ignorant obama voters that vote by skin color or how much "free" stuff they get.

    May 11, 2013 03:31 pm at 3:31 pm |
  25. Jerry

    No doubt the Obama administration (probably Obama himself) ordered the IRS to pursue all the groups that do not "Bend Forward" or kiss the ring of the King of the United States. Anyone at the IRS that has been involved with this illegal ruse should be fired and/or brought up on charges; including The Man Himself!

    May 11, 2013 03:35 pm at 3:35 pm |
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