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. Charles

    It gets a little silly blaming the President. At the most, some lib at the IRS facility didn't feel like processing the application. I do enjoy all the lefties complaining about the Tea Party requesting 501(c) status when all of the liberal crusader organizations have done the same and would riot (literally) if the NAACP were to be delayed in their free stuff give-away. Remember, vote early and often.

    May 10, 2013 02:28 pm at 2:28 pm |
  2. Sniffit

    ""...Lois Lerner, who heads the IRS unit that oversees tax-exempt groups, said organizations that included the words "tea party" or "patriot" in their applications for tax-exempt status were singled out for additional reviews."

    Not going to see that "little detail" covered on this network."

    And again, while you claim something is being left out, you yourself are using a cherry-picked out-of-context bit of information. You fail to include that the "singling out" was done by a couple of low-level employees and you are deliberately misusing that quote to imply that it was, instead, somehow IRS policy that they be singled out. It wasn't.

    May 10, 2013 02:30 pm at 2:30 pm |
  3. Don Diego

    Ahh. The stupid comments made on these boards by liberals and conservatives alike are hillarious. Half just spit out idiotic talking points. The best is the liberals who are automatic with the moronic statements about Republicans. Both parties are worthless, each lies, and cheats. I am an independant, I vote for who I like on an issue, but one thing I have figured out is I will never be a Democrat. I have found in my 78yrs of life that there are far more irrational and ignorant Democrats than Repubs. Not that, that is saying alot because both have the lunatic fringe. In case someone cares I am a Latino immigrant from Central America 62yrs ago, (former) Marine officer, and retired attorney, with too much time on my hands. Gotta go, Semper Fi !

    May 10, 2013 02:30 pm at 2:30 pm |
  4. Blind Orange Julius

    I've been complaining about this all day in the Fox News comments section!

    May 10, 2013 02:31 pm at 2:31 pm |
  5. James Cheatham

    I gotta wonder how much the "government wide review" would cost the American taxpayer? Especially for something the IRS has stated was a problem based in implementation not in political motivation. The insult to the government worker is telling. These guys are trying to do a job that no one else would do for the wages the government pays.

    May 10, 2013 02:31 pm at 2:31 pm |
  6. Danee76

    Obama is lucky the mainstream media is so obedient to him because any honest media would be all over ANY President who would use the IRS right before an election to compromise it. In light of the fact that the administration lied and covered up for Benghazi right before the election as well definitely puts a shadow over the integrity of the last election.

    May 10, 2013 02:31 pm at 2:31 pm |
  7. RO

    Maybe we can work on doing away with the term and premise of a "career civil servant".

    May 10, 2013 02:31 pm at 2:31 pm |
  8. GB Smith

    Wow, look at these comments. Obama has really divided this nation

    May 10, 2013 02:32 pm at 2:32 pm |
  9. Lord Vader

    Gotta love the hypocrisy of the liberal stench mob. if Bush was in charge, the nasty pot smokers would be out in full force protesting and vandalizing property.

    May 10, 2013 02:34 pm at 2:34 pm |
  10. Unstable_Craton

    So the voter registration bills which the GOP pushed weren't aimed squarely at ethnic groups whom vote predominantly for one party. Come on Mitch, easy on the act of indignation over someones civil rights being trampled. That being said, I agree there needs to be a study done to see if a study would identify who should be investigated.

    May 10, 2013 02:35 pm at 2:35 pm |
  11. LOL

    The Real Tom Paine

    Conisdering the number of non-profits that are founded for dubious purposes the IRS should be looking closely at any goup, right or left. By the way, using the IRS as a political tool to silence or discredit opponants is a time honored right-wing tactic.

    I would 100% agree but the fact is they singled out only "Teaparty" or "Patriot" which show that they singled out 1 SPECIFIC GROUP, not all non-profits!!! Man, liberals on here are the most shameful nasty people I have read!!!! They are caught red handed and all you liberals can say is Teatroll this and teatrolls that, you are disgraceful!!! And for those that cry about what did Obama have to do with is, HE IS THE BOSS, just as with business, politics, just about any area in the world, the BOSS is RESPONSIBLE FOR WHAT HIS EMPLOYEES DO, he may not have directly made this happen but it still happened on his watch!!!!! You know if you could actually have an intelligent conversation versus calling everyone who does not agree with you a teatroll, you would have a LOT more credibility!

    May 10, 2013 02:35 pm at 2:35 pm |
  12. JC

    It was all a "mistake". Sorry. It's been fixed now, nothing more to worry or investigate about. Run along now, citizen.

    May 10, 2013 02:36 pm at 2:36 pm |
  13. Wake up People!

    See America, THIS is what happens when you elect a half black man as POTUS..... The fact that his mother was white is of no consequence. I now know there will NEVER be a POTUS with two black parents.

    This is pathetic. How anyone can support the GOP and their lies, is completely beyond me.

    Nothing but obstruction since January 20, 2009.....

    May 10, 2013 02:37 pm at 2:37 pm |
  14. cara williams

    OHHH the hypocrisy! wahhhh! people should pay their taxes, WAHHHHHHH! We pay more in taxes for all the lazy people WAHHHHHH!!! ....oh, by the way, can we not pay taxes??
    Nothing but ignorant hypocrites.

    May 10, 2013 02:37 pm at 2:37 pm |
  15. REALLY???

    Really??? Right this... left this.... if you don't agree with me your evil.... that is almost what all of you are saying regardless of which side you are on.

    What is sad is you don't even realize how radical you guys are.

    May 10, 2013 02:38 pm at 2:38 pm |
  16. me

    Tea Party and all of the fools who dutifully follow the Firm can all rot in Hell... they are nothing more than selfish whining "me first" people (or low IQ people who lack the ability to realize they are being taken advantage of by those at the top of their ranks)... mostly they are the same fools who cry about their 2nd amendment rights being taken... it's a shame the average American has to put up with such liars with anti-social behavior issues...

    May 10, 2013 02:38 pm at 2:38 pm |
  17. Peg

    Are people really ignorant enough to believe that only Democrats work for the IRS? I suppose only Obama supporters work there now. What did they do? Fire all the people that were hired when Bush was in office? Use some common sense people! Even if Pres. Obama tried to control the IRS, the Republicans who work there would blow the whistle in a heartbeat!

    May 10, 2013 02:38 pm at 2:38 pm |
  18. Guy

    The similarities between the administrations Richard Nixon and Barack Obama are uncanny. The cover up of a scandal (Watergate/Benghazi) and the use of the IRS against political foes. Remember, only 26 months went by after the break-in occurred at the Watergate complex in June of 1972 until Nixon resigned in August of 1974.

    May 10, 2013 02:38 pm at 2:38 pm |
  19. Sniffit

    And note very carefully that you will never hear any GOPer/Teatroll say anything about this that acknowledges it was low-level employees not doing their jobs correctly. They will consistently say "the IRS" in the attempt to paint this as having been IRS policy and the way the process was intentionally set up and directed to work. It wasn't...or, even if it was, we have absolutely zero evidence to even suggest it at this point. You make those conclusions AFTER you get the evidence, not BEFORE. But just watch how quick they regress to diversionary rhetoric if asked questions about the employees, etc., when being interviewed. My guess they will be handed memos telling them to do things like talking about a "pervasive culture of corruption at the IRS" whenever someone brings up the low-level employees will be their means of expanding it to the whole IRS and pandering to the GOP/Teatroll base, who apparently believe that taxation itself is inherently "corrupt."

    May 10, 2013 02:39 pm at 2:39 pm |
  20. tritam

    Thats the Dems...Take and Take and Cheat and Cheat

    May 10, 2013 02:40 pm at 2:40 pm |
  21. Adak95

    It's about time Berry's illegal activities are coming to light.

    May 10, 2013 02:40 pm at 2:40 pm |
  22. rl

    I guess I am going to have to file as tax-exempt. I can be just as stupid.

    May 10, 2013 02:42 pm at 2:42 pm |
  23. Sniffit

    "Now more than ever we need to send a clear message to the Obama Administration that the First Amendment is non-negotiable"

    "...unless we're trying to throw it under the bus with respect to music, video games and movies as a diversionary tactic to help gun manufacturers and retailers."

    May 10, 2013 02:42 pm at 2:42 pm |
  24. Jake Theron

    I'm appalled by this, especially after having read the original article at Reuters via Google news. I voted for Obama, and I'd be happy to see the Tea Party dry up and go away, but this is not the way America should work. We don't use the government to silence our political adversaries. Freedom should apply to everyone, whether they're gay, straight, Christian, atheist, liberal, or a tea-party moron. (Sorry, couldn't resist.)

    As for you posters, shame on you. Just because people disagree with you does not mean they are evil or "the enemy." If you can't take part in civilized discussion, perhaps you should consider whether you are part of the problem instead of part of the solution.

    May 10, 2013 02:43 pm at 2:43 pm |
  25. Nameimmigrant

    Libs try to act smart but their posts give them away

    May 10, 2013 02:44 pm at 2:44 pm |
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