ProPublica, April 9, 2014, 11:52 p.m.
A GOP-led House
committee voted Wednesday to seek criminal charges against former IRS
official Lois Lerner, who used to run the IRS division in charge of tax-exempt
groups. In a party-line vote, the committee accused Lerner of unfairly
targeting the applications of conservative groups and misleading the Treasury
inspector general, which was auditing the IRS based on allegations of bias against
committee referred Lerner to the Justice Department for prosecution, it will
likely have little practical effect, as the Justice Department is already
investigating the Internal Revenue Service and Lerner. But the documents released by the committee do
shed some light on the inner workings of the IRS's Exempt Organizations
division and how it approached applications of social welfare nonprofits, also
known as dark money groups because they spend
money on elections without reporting their donors. The influence of such groups
has skyrocketed since the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision.
Here are the top
five takeaways ProPublica found from the documents:
1.The IRS planned to deny the
application of Crossroads GPS.
GPS spent more than $90 million from unknown donors to elect conservatives in
the 2010 and 2012 elections, far more than any other dark money group. By the
beginning of 2013, the IRS was planning to deny the group's application, the
applying to the IRS in September 2010, Crossroads started spending, and
campaign-finance watchdogs started complaining. An IRS panel considered taking
a deeper look at Crossroads twice — in November 2010 and June 2011
— but rejected the idea both times. One reviewer in November 2010 said
that Crossroads was a "for-profit entity," a mistake Lerner later wrote that she found
June 2012, the IRS created a spreadsheet on Crossroads to analyze the group's
TV ad costs and track whether the ads were political or issue advocacy. A
description of the group's website in an IRS spreadsheet said it "appears
to be an anti-Obama Administration website; however there are educational
materials on site."
late 2012, Crossroads' application was released to ProPublica in response to a public-records
request — even though it wasn't supposed to be made public. The
application showed that Crossroads told the IRS that its political spending "will be limited in amount."
IRS received 25 referrals on Crossroads GPS
between 2010 and 2012, the documents show — a referral is a complaint
about a nonprofit, and can include a formal request for investigation or simply
a news article.
Crossroads' application. "I recommend that we just let this one sit and
wait out the deadline," she wrote.
an email two days later, Lerner wrote that she had read through allegations
from campaign finance watchdogs about Crossroads, adding that they "were really
Jan. 9, 2013, the IRS was drafting a denial letter to Crossroads, the documents show. There was no more
significant action until May 2, 2013, when a call was made to discuss the
"draft denial letter."
on May 8, 2013, documents indicate that the IRS was also looking at "the
draft denial of a similar case."
May 13 until May 17, 2013, the IRS continued
"working on draft of letter." By May 30, 2013, the first working
draft of the denial was finished and sent for review.
by that point, the IRS had come under scrutiny for revelations that it
had targeted Tea Party groups for extra review. There's no proof that the
letter to Crossroads was ever sent.
an emailed statement Wednesday, Crossroads GPS President Steven Law said the
group was still waiting to hear final action from the IRS on its application.
Like the House Ways and Means Committee, Law accused Lerner of improperly
singling out Crossroads for extra review.
GPS submitted its application to the IRS for formal recognition of its
non-profit status when the group was formed in 2010," Law said. "It
is now apparent that Ms. Lerner was directly and improperly involved in
targeting our application, which may explain why we are still awaiting final
Lerner's lawyer, William Taylor, said that Lerner had done nothing wrong.
"She did not interfere with the rights of any organization to a tax
exemption," he said in a statement.
2.The IRS also planned to deny
the applications of other conservative groups that had spent on elections after
telling the IRS they wouldn't do so.
GPS wasn't the only dark money group facing denial before the IRS controversy
response to a public-records request in late 2012, the IRS had also sent ProPublica
the pending applications for five other conservative social welfare nonprofits
that had told the IRS that they wouldn't spend money on politics but then did
so. The groups were Americans for Responsible Leadership, Freedom Path,
Rightchange.com II, America Is Not Stupid and A Better America Now.
ProPublica wrote about the
groups on Jan. 2, 2013. Nikole Flax, the chief of
staff to the acting IRS commissioner at the time, forwarded the story to Lerner and two
other IRS officials on the afternoon it was published in an email with the
subject line, "latest article."
same day, Lerner asked to set up a meeting to talk about the groups'
Ways and Means Committee found that four of the five groups had been subjected
to heightened scrutiny, and three were audited, though it's not clear which
ones. The IRS recognized both America Is Not Stupid and A Better America Now
last year. Americans for Responsible Leadership was also recognized in October
2013 — despite spending almost $10 million on elections in 2012 and
paying a record-breaking fine in California for violations of election laws.
January 2013, Lerner also indicated more social welfare nonprofits would be
denied. On Jan. 31, she emailed the chief of the IRS office of appeals, saying
that in the next few months her office believed appeals would "get a lot
of business" regarding denials of social welfare applications.
told them (the appeals group) this is a place where we have worked very hard to
be consistent and have all our cases worked by one group, and suggested they (sic) might want to do
something similar," Lerner wrote, adding that her office was being audited
because of allegations of political bias in these cases. "If I were you,
this is definitely something I'd want to be aware of and have a high level person
overseeing and reporting regularly
(sic) to me. You were in TEGE (the Tax Exempt/Government Entities division)
long enough to understand how dangerous what we do can be."
documents included spreadsheets of the application status of various groups,
including one providing aid in Pakistan and another trying to set up a medical
marijuana dispensary as a charity. One spreadsheet indicated that a Tea Party group
could be approved as a social welfare nonprofit but not as a charity.
of all the groups listed in a 2011 spreadsheet as being flagged
for review, only Emerge America and its affiliates ended up being denied. Those
groups trained Democratic women to run for office.
3.The IRS really is not equipped
to police elections — and knows it.
the documents Wednesday, Lerner acknowledges how poorly the IRS monitors these
groups, which are allowed to spend money on elections as long as they can
justify they primarily work to benefit the community at large.
one point, on Jan. 7, 2013, she wrote an email complaining that the IRS was not
following up with groups that hadn't filed their tax returns, or Form 990s.
groups that filed tax returns, "that's a big hole
in the system."
you have newspapers telling us what the orgs (sic) are doing, but we never
look," she wrote. "If the org has been around log (sic) enough to owe
us a 990 and they aren't filing to hide what they are alleged to have done, it
should be our job to go out and get the 990 and then determine whether the
allegations — that are very strong — are true."
level of confidence that we are equipped to do this work continues to be
shaken," she wrote in another email. "I don't even
know what to recommend to make this better."
from two campaign-finance watchdog groups, Democracy 21 and the Campaign Legal
Center, said Wednesday that they had met with Lerner and other IRS officials in
early January 2013 over their allegations that several social welfare
nonprofits, including a liberal group and a nonpartisan one, were overly
political. They said Lerner refused to talk about individual taxpayers.
left the meeting extremely frustrated because neither Ms. Lerner nor her
colleagues revealed anything," said Paul S. Ryan, senior counsel for the
Campaign Legal Center. "I would use the word 'frustrated' in general in
our attitude toward the IRS." He later added, "The IRS hasn't done
anything" to enforce restrictions on political spending with these groups.
4.Most new liberal groups don't
apply to the IRS.
welfare nonprofits don't have to be recognized by the IRS, because donations to
them are not tax-deductible. They just have to incorporate as social welfare
nonprofits in their state of choice.
groups typically have applied for recognition anyway, possibly because their
donors want the IRS seal of approval.
One of the most active liberal dark money groups, Patriot
Majority USA, has been recognized by the IRS.
But other liberal groups have taken advantage of the loophole. Often, they
incorporate, never apply to the IRS, spend money on elections and then fold
after filing a tax return or two.
newly released documents show that one of the most prominent liberal dark money
groups, Priorities USA, never applied to the IRS for recognition.
dark money groups have been much less active in elections than conservative
ones since the Citizens United decision. About 85 percent of the anonymous
money spent in 2010 and 2012 came from conservative groups. Priorities USA,
despite being run by top liberal operatives, reported spending nothing on
federal elections in 2012.
5.Lerner may have considered
applying to work at a leading liberal social welfare nonprofit.
Jan. 24, 2013, she emailed two senior IRS officials, asking if Organizing for Action
— the nonprofit formed from the leftovers of President Barack Obama's
campaign organization — had applied for IRS recognition.
of the officials, Holly Paz, told Lerner she wasn't sure.
IRS official, Sharon Light, said she thought it likely that OFA would follow
Priorities USA's path and not apply. "But maybe not," she added. She
noted that while OFA would be run from Chicago, it would also have a Washington
— maybe I can get the DC office job!" Lerner emailed back.
is unclear whether she was joking.
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