Why the IRS targeted Tea Party groups in the 2012 election

Republicans have blasted the agency for "thuggish practices"

IRS staffers reportedly targeted groups with "Tea Party" or "patriot" in their titles.
(Image credit: BRIAN SNYDER/Reuters/Corbis)

A top official with the Internal Revenue Service on Friday said the agency had erred in singling out conservative political groups for extended reviews of their tax-exempt status during the last election cycle.

While conservatives have alleged for more than a year that they were being unfairly targeted, the admission and apology by Lois Lerner, director of the IRS' Exempt Organizations Division, was the first time the agency has acknowledged any wrongdoing.

"That was wrong," Lerner said. "That was absolutely incorrect, it was insensitive and it was inappropriate. That's not how we go about selecting cases for further review."

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According to Lerner, agency staffers targeted groups with "Tea Party" or "patriot" in their titles, asking them to submit additional information to justify their nonprofit, tax-exempt status. That resulted in some 75 groups being improperly singled out, though none had their tax-exempt status revoked, she said.

Lerner denied that the targeting, which took place between 2010 and 2012, was in any way politically motivated. Rather, she said, low-level employees in Cincinnati, Ohio, began the practice without the knowledge of higher-ups in the agency.

"Mistakes were made initially, but they were in no way due to any political or partisan rationale," the IRS said in a statement. "We fixed the situation last year and have made significant progress in moving the centralized cases through our system."

Still, many Republican lawmakers seized on the apology as evidence that the IRS had a partisan bias. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) released a statement calling for a "transparent, government-wide review" into the "thuggish practices":

Today's apology by the IRS is proof that those concerns were well founded. But make no mistake, an apology won't put this issue to rest. Now more than ever we need to send a clear message to the Obama Administration that the First Amendment is non-negotiable, and that apologies after an election year are not an sufficient response to what we now know took place at the IRS. This kind of political thuggery has absolutely no place in our politics.

Liberal commentators, likewise, said that the apology raises serious questions about the agency's credibility, and that it could result in people losing their jobs.

"For a change, all of these complaints are legitimate," says MSNBC's Steve Benen. "There really was wrongdoing. Groups really were treated unfairly. It'd be wrong to dismiss the complaints, assuming the right is just manufacturing some new pseudo-scandal; this really does deserve to be taken seriously."

At issue were organizations listed as 501(c)(4)s under the tax code, a special designation for "social welfare" non-profits that are supposed to be primarily apolitical (though they are allowed to participate in political activities). Sixteen Tea Party groups joined forces last year, alleging that the IRS was going after them because of their political leanings.

"This is obviously a coordinated effort by the I.R.S. to stifle these Tea Party and Tea Party-affiliated groups, and to stifle free speech activities," Jay Sekulo, a lawyer for those groups, said last year. "It's as onerous as what they did to the N.A.A.C.P. in the 1950s, and I plan to make that point."

The Tea Party Patriots, one of the groups targeted by the IRS, rejected the apology, saying in a statement Friday that it "does nothing to alleviate the danger of this happening again."

"The IRS has demonstrated the most disturbing, illegal and outrageous abuse of government power," said Jenny Beth Martin, a Tea Party Patriots spokesperson. "President Obama must also apologize for his administration ignoring repeated complaints by these broad grassroots organizations of harassment by the IRS in 2012, and make concrete and transparent steps today to ensure this never happens again."

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney on Friday said that the IRS' actions were "inappropriate," and that President Obama wanted the incident to be "thoroughly investigated."

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Jon Terbush

Jon Terbush is an associate editor at TheWeek.com covering politics, sports, and other things he finds interesting. He has previously written for Talking Points Memo, Raw Story, and Business Insider.