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Tea Party groups slam IRS apology

The Internal Revenue Service singled out about 75 organizations because they used the words “tea party” or “patriot” in applications for tax-exempt status, though none had its tax-exempt status revoked, the agency said.

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Saturday, May 11, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
 

Conservative groups and political leaders rejected a top Internal Revenue Service official's apology for the agency's added scrutiny of activist groups during the 2012 re-election campaign of President Obama.

“That was wrong,” said Lois Lerner, who heads the IRS division that oversees tax-exempt groups.

The IRS singled out about 75 organizations because they used the words “tea party” or “patriot” in applications for tax-exempt status, Lerner said at a conference sponsored by the American Bar Association. None had its tax-exempt status revoked, she said.

In some cases, the IRS scrutinized organizations' social media postings, sought information about family members and asked for lists of donors.

Under the tax code, 501(c)(4) nonprofit groups are allowed to participate in political activities, but their primary activity must be social welfare. They are not required to disclose donors.

The additional scrutiny “was absolutely incorrect; it was insensitive, and it was inappropriate,” Lerner said. “That's not how we go about selecting cases for further review.”

That's not enough for Tea Party organizer Jennifer Stefano, state director of Americans for Prosperity-Pennsylvania in Bucks County. Tea Party groups complained about the extra scrutiny last year.

“This tremendous violation of the rights of Americans warrants more than an apology. Action must be taken immediately to ensure this never happens again,” Stefano said.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky urged the White House to “conduct a transparent, government-wide review aimed at assuring the American people that these thuggish practices are not under way at the IRS or elsewhere in the administration against anyone, regardless of their political views.”

White House spokesman Jay Carney declared it was indeed inappropriate for the IRS to target Tea Party groups. But he brushed aside questions about whether the White House itself would investigate.

U.S. Rep. Mike Kelly, R-Butler, said he would support legislation to prevent similar behavior.

“That the levers of our government were used to harass certain citizens and undermine their First Amendment rights is, frankly, sickening. Such a blatant abuse of power by any federal agency or office cannot be tolerated and must be punished,” Kelly said.

Bruce Antkowiak, professor and program director of the criminology, law and society program at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, said the extra scrutiny could spur changes much like the Watergate scandal did in the early 1970s.

“There were significant allegations that President Nixon and perhaps presidents before him used the IRS to target enemies of theirs, as a political weapon. It resulted in significant changes in IRS jurisdiction and regulations,” Antkowiak said.

Lerner blamed the wrongdoing on lower-level employees in a Cincinnati office handling applications for tax-exempt status. The office was inundated in recent years because the number of groups filing for tax-exempt status more than doubled from 2010 to 2012, to 3,400.

To handle the influx, the IRS centralized its review of applications. As part of the review, IRS agents examine applications to make sure politics is not an organization's primary activity.

Lerner said agents in Cincinnati developed a list of things to look for in an application. The list included the terms “tea party” or “patriot.”

Agents chose about 300 groups for additional review. Lerner said 150 cases are closed, and no group lost its tax-exempt status.

“I didn't have problems with the IRS and I certainly don't want any,” said Sam DeMarco, president of the Moon-based Veterans & Patriots United.

DeMarco's 500-member group was granted tax-exempt status in April, 18 months after applying.

“The IRS went to our website, did research on us and requested a bunch of information, but the guy I worked with was very nice. We didn't have to undergo what I heard some Tea Party groups had to go through. We didn't have anyone threatening us or anything like that,” DeMarco said.

The Associated Press and Bloomberg contributed to this report. Tom Fontaine is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7847 or tfontaine@tribweb.com.

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