A national tea party group is asking for permission to keep their donors secret — just like the socialists. Citing a long litany of harassment examples, the Tea Party Leadership Fund is asking the Federal Election Commission for the same right granted to the Socialist Workers Party to shield the names and information of their donors from the public. In a new request to the FEC shared with POLITICO, the group argues that tea party donors and activists are being targeted for harassment by government officials and private groups — and they cite derogatory comments by politicians and overbearing government investigations as evidence. “Nobody likes the communists and really for good reason,” said Dan Backer, the attorney for the group who wrote and filed the complaint. But, Backer said, the same legal principle that grants left-wring groups the right to hide their donors should also cover tea party groups. “As we very thoroughly document at almost three times the length of the socialist request, tea party supporters are subject to an unprecedented level of harassment and abuse,” Backer said. If the tea party request is granted, the decision could open the floodgates to outside groups, candidates and political parties who want to hide their donors with the government’s blessing. “This will be the beginning of a conversation about the burdens and the perils of disclosure,” Backer predicted.
In spring 2010, agents in the Cincinnati office of the Internal Revenue Service, which handles applications for tax-exempt status, faced a surge of filings by new advocacy groups, with little guidance on how to treat them. Their decision to deal with the problem by singling out tea party and other conservative groups for extra scrutiny has now triggered a criminal inquiry, congressional investigations, the departure of two top IRS officials and the naming of a new acting commissioner Thursday. For former IRS staff and tax experts, the case confirms what they view as one of the agency’s long-standing weaknesses: its inability to cope with the growing number of tax-exempt advocacy groups that appear to stretch the law to engage in politics.
The Internal Revenue Service is caught in an election-year struggle between Democratic lawmakers pressing for a crackdown on nonprofit political groups and conservative organizations accusing the tax agency of conducting a politically charged witch hunt. In recent weeks, the I.R.S. has sent dozens of detailed questionnaires to Tea Party organizations applying for nonprofit tax status, demanding to know their political leanings and activities. The agency plans this year to press existing nonprofits like American Crossroads, on the Republican side, and Priorities USA, on the Democratic side, to justify their tax-protected status as “social welfare” organizations, a status that many tax professionals believe is being badly abused. Senate Democrats are readying a fresh legislative push to demand that such groups disclose their donors and attach disclaimers to their political advertising identifying the advertisement’s primary funders. Tax experts are also raising concerns that corporate donors to “super PACs” may be deducting their contributions as business expenses.
There’s no mystery about why a business or industry group might be shy about how it spends money on election campaigns. Just ask department store chain Target. In 2010, Target, which had been known for its progressive employment policies, faced a customer and shareholder backlash after it donated $150,000 to a pro-business PAC in Minnesota that was backing a gubernatorial candidate who opposed gay rights. Target eventually quelled the furor with a policy change prohibiting trade groups from using its contributions to intervene in elections, but it stopped short of disclosing all its political donations. Yet had it made its Minnesota donation through a nonprofit organization known as a 501(c)4, it might have avoided all that hassle. That’s because such organizations don’t have to disclose who their donors are.