When IRS officials publicly apologized last week for sorting out tax-exemption applications from tea party groups, one tea party network seized the moment to claim victimization by the federal government. True the Vote, a conglomerate of conservative tea party and "Patriot" groups across the nation seeking restrictive voting laws, claimed that their application for 501(c)3 status was wrongfully put through rigorous review by the IRS. Now they are suing the IRS claiming that due to their "perceived conservative policy positions and affiliation with Tea Party organizations" they were "systematically targeted... for additional review and scrutiny ... [and] was deliberately subjected to numerous unnecessary and burdensome requests for information about its operations and affiliations," as it reads in their complaint.
For the record, the IRS officials have said that political bias was not a motivation for their sorting of applications. The inspector general who investigated the situation found no political bias, only that IRS officials in a Cincinnati office used "inappropriate criteria" for the sorting. So far as we know, the IRS employees sorted this way because of a spike in 501(c) 4 tax exemption status applications -- the bulk of those from tea party and patriot groups. Meanwhile, a decrease in IRS staff and resources burdened their capacity to effectively deal with the application deluge.
But despite True the Vote's claim, nothing that IRS officials are accused of or have admitted to would support True the Vote's accusation. The criteria used to sort out applications was to find any application that had the words "Tea Party," "Patriot" or "9/12" [a reference to conservative groups started by Glenn Beck] in the applicant's name. One reason for this might be that many of these groups have flouted tax laws while some have called publicly for the elimination of taxes and the IRS altogether. Either way, True the Vote has none of those keywords in their name, so they can't claim they were part of the sorted group.
They do have "Vote" in their name, though, and if they did receive extra scrutiny, it could be because 501(c)3 groups are not supposed to engage in activity that influences how people vote when it comes to political candidates and campaigns. And yet, True the Vote intervened in the recall election for Gov. Scott Walker in Wisconsin last year, and they are currently leading an intervention in Rep. Allen West's already failed re-election run as we speak. In that sense, True the Vote wasn't profiled by the IRS, they profiled themselves.
True the Vote's founder Catherine Engelbrecht said in a press release: "After answering hundreds of questions and producing thousands of documents, we're done waiting. The IRS does not have the power to pocket veto our application."
The IRS does have the authority to request for additional information from an organization seeking non-profit status if that group's activities have engaged in questionable political activity. As Kim Barker and Justin Elliott reported at ProPublica:
In the 1970s, that meant flagging all applications for primary and secondary schools in the south facing desegregation. In the 1980s, during the wave of consolidation in the health-care industry, all applications from health-care nonprofits needed to be sent to headquarters. The division's different field offices had to send these applications up the chain.
The fact that True the Vote's membership largely consists of tea party members only adds to their dubious reputation. But True the Vote has been down the litigious road before -- a few times actually. Last year, they basically created a cottage industry out of shaking down states with nuisance lawsuits around election practices, while pressuring those states to put restrictive voting polices in place. Looks like the IRS is just the latest caught in their scheme.
Hear me discuss True the Vote and the IRS flap on NPR's "Tell Me More" here: