IRS Targeted Tea Party Tax-Exempt Groups For Increased Scrutiny And Missed The Real Problem

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) acknowledged Friday that it had improperly flagged groups applying for tax-exempt status for additional scrutiny if they contained common Tea Party keywords in their names. Rather than addressing the real problem of political committees masquerading as 501(c)(4) groups to evade public disclosure laws, this approach instead delayed the process for several groups purely on the basis of their names.

Lois Lerner, head of the IRS unit that oversees tax-exempt groups, noted that the number of 501(c)(4) group applications doubled between 2010 and 2012. As a result of this influx, she explained, low-level workers at the agency’s Cincinnati office had flagged about 300 applications for additional review based on a keyword search. None had their status revoked or denied and the IRS apologized for the mistake.

While it unclear whether the IRS workers intentionally targeted conservative groups — an agency spokesman did not immediately respond to a ThinkProgress request for the complete list of keywords used — the office revealed that two of the terms on the list were “Tea Party” and “patriot.” As such, about 75 Tea Party groups were singled out for additional scrutiny.

The spike in 501(c)(4) groups comes after the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United v. FEC decision that outside groups may make unlimited political expenditures. Since then, some 501(c)(4) organizations have begun abusing the system. Though groups engaged in some political activity may qualify as “social welfare groups” and receive tax-exempt status under this section of the tax code, electioneering cannot be their predominant activity.


Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS, for example, told the IRS that any political ads run by the group would be “limited in amount” and “would not constitute the group’s primary purpose.” Campaign finance reform advocates have argued that, in light of more than $70 million in “independent expenditure” ad spending, the group’s primary purpose is clearly campaign activity. But rather than register with the Federal Election Commission as a political committee, Crossroads GPS continues to claim that it is not such a group and need not publicly identify its funders.