During the summer of 2010, the dozen or so accountants and tax agents of Group 7822 of the Internal Revenue Service office in Cincinnati got a directive from their manager. A growing number of organizations identifying themselves as part of the Tea Party had begun applying for tax exemptions, the manager said, advising the workers to be on the lookout for them and other groups planning to get involved in elections. “I don’t believe there’s any such thing as rogue agents,” said Bonnie Esrig, a former senior manager in the I.R.S. office in Cincinnati. The specialists, hunched over laptops on the office’s fourth floor, rarely discussed politics, one former supervisor said. Low-level employees in what many in the I.R.S. consider a backwater, they processed thousands of applications a year, mostly from charities like private schools or hospitals.
For months, the Tea Party cases sat on the desk of a lone specialist, who used “political sounding” criteria — words like “patriots,” “we the people” — as a way to search efficiently through the flood of applications for groups that might not qualify for exemptions, according to the I.R.S. inspector general. “Triage,” the agency’s acting chief described it.
As a grim-faced President Obama denounced the “inexcusable” actions of the I.R.S. last week and lawmakers of both parties lined up in Washington on Friday to accuse it of an array of misconduct, everything seemed so clear: the nation’s tax agency had deliberately targeted conservative activists, violating the public trust — and perhaps the law.
While there are still many gaps in the story of how the I.R.S. scandal happened, interviews with current and former employees and with lawyers who dealt with them, along with a review of I.R.S. documents, paint a more muddled picture of an understaffed Cincinnati outpost that was alienated from the broader I.R.S. culture and given little direction.