In early 2010, an Internal Revenue Service team in Cincinnati began noticing a stream of applications from groups with political-sounding names, setting in motion a dragnet aimed at separating legitimate tax-exempt groups from those working to get candidates elected. The IRS officials decided to single out one type of political group for particular scrutiny. “These cases involve various local organizations in the Tea Party movement,” read one internal IRS e-mail sent at the time. A few hours north in Fremont, Ohio, the owners of a drainage supply shop, Tom and Marion Bower, were wondering why it was taking so long to get a tax exemption for their new tea party group. “I didn’t think any of us thought we’d be targeted,” said Marion Bower, of American Patriots Against Government Excess. “We started the group because we wanted to learn about our country and educate people. Now I’m becoming a little paranoid. If they can do this, what else can they do?”
Groups such as the Bowers’ were among more than a hundred conservative organizations singled out for extra screening by the IRS, part of an attempt to identify politically active groups not eligible for tax exemptions. The revelations, described in detail last week by the IRS watchdog, have caused a political earthquake — prompting the resignations of two top IRS officials, a criminal investigation and multiple congressional probes, including hearings scheduled for this week.
The story of the IRS’s policy of targeting right-leaning groups, which played out over several years in Cincinnati, Washington, and dozens of other cities and towns, was one of a bureaucracy caught in a morass of uncertainty and outside pressure. The actions also confirmed the suspicions of many conservatives after they had complained for years of harassment by the tax agency.
According to the inspector general’s report, as IRS officials in Cincinnati tried to decide what to do about the groups — political advocacy organizations seeking what is known as 501 (c)(4) status — they sent out intrusive questionnaires seeking donor lists, copies of meeting minutes and reams of other documents. Applications sat around for months, sometimes years; some organizations ended up folding while awaiting answers that never came.
IRS officials in Cincinnati were ignorant of the law and did not recognize that they should not scrutinize groups solely based on terms such as “tea party,” “patriots” and other conservative-sounding descriptions in their names, the inspector general’s report said. Many liberal-leaning and nonpolitical groups were also caught up in the effort.