A series of IRS documents, provided to ThinkProgress under the Freedom of Information Act, appears to contradict the claims by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) and his House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that only Tea Party organizations applying for tax-exempt status “received systematic scrutiny because of their political beliefs.” The 22 “Be On the Look Out” keywords lists, distributed to staff reviewing applications between August 12, 2010 and April 19, 2013, included more explicit references to progressive groups, ACORN successors, and medical marijuana organizations than to Tea Party entities.
The IRS provided the heavily-redacted lists to ThinkProgress, after nearly a year-long search. From the earliest lists through 2012, the “historical” section of the lists encouraged reviewers to watch out for “progressive” groups with names like “blue,” as their requests for 501(c)(3) charitable status might be inappropriate. Their inclusion in this section suggests that the concern predates the initial 2010 list.
Explicit references to “Tea Party,” included in the “emerging issues” section of the lists, also began in August 2010 — but stopped appearing after the May 10, 2011 list. From that point on, the lists instructed agents to flag all political advocacy groups of any stripe. The documents instructed the agents to forward any “organization involved with political, lobbying, or advocacy” applying for 501(c)(3) or 501(c)(4) status be forwarded to “group 7822” for additional review. Groups under both categories are limited in the amount of of lobbying and political activity each can undertake.
Other types of groups received explicit scrutiny for longer than “progressive” or “Tea Party” organizations. These included applicants involved with “medical marijuana” but not “exclusively education” (19 appearances in the “watch list” section of the lists), which were to be forwarded to a “group 7888” and groups believed to be possible successor-groups to ACORN, the now-shuttered Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (12 appearances on the “watch list” section). Those applications were also to be elevated to managers for further review. All 22 documents also flagged applicants with Puerto Rico addresses and certain types of “Testamentary Trusts.”
Last year, the IRS acknowledged that it had improperly flagged groups applying for tax-exempt status for additional scrutiny if they contained common Tea Party keywords in their applications. Rather than addressing the very 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. President Obama and members of both parties in Congress all agree that the IRS acted improperly in singling-out certain groups for more scrutiny than others.
In Issa’s committee’s recent report, “Debunking the Myth that the IRS Targeted Progressives,” the Republican majority staffers wrote that while the Be On the Lookout lists’ language was “changed to broader ‘political advocacy organizations,’ the IRS still intended to identify and single out Tea Party applications for scrutiny.” The report goes to great lengths to distinguish the different types of scrutiny provided to each of these types of flagged group. But the actual IRS records indicate that at least some additional scrutiny was required for groups of all types that had names that sounded political — and that the explicit heightened scrutiny for left-leaning groups was even longer-standing than for Tea Party groups.
IRS disclosure manager Bertrand Tzeng noted, in a letter, that these 22 released documents “constitute the set of criteria that were used by IRS employees and which were produced to the investigating congressional committees.” Tzeng added that while his office has been informed that “draft versions of some of these documents may also exist, we understand that such drafts would be exempt from disclosure under FOIA exemption” as simply part of the agency’s deliberative process.
Read the lists.
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