Washington • The Internal Revenue Service apologized Friday for inappropriately targeting tea party groups with tax-exempt status during the 2012 election season, something top IRS officials have previously denied when pressed by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and other members of Congress.
The new disclosure came at a conference sponsored by the American Bar Association, where Lois Lerner, who oversees tax-exempt groups for the IRS, said that low-level employees in Cincinnati singled out groups with "tea party" and "patriot" in the name, subjecting them to increased screening.
"That was wrong. That was absolutely incorrect, it was insensitive and it was inappropriate. That’s not how we go about selecting cases for further review," Lerner said according to the Associated Press. "The IRS would like to apologize for that."
Hatch says an apology is not good enough and demanded a full briefing from IRS leaders.
"We need to have ironclad guarantees from the IRS that it will adopt significant protocols to ensure this kind of harassment of groups that have a constitutional right to express their own views never happens again," Hatch said in a statement. "There can be no tolerance for the IRS being turned into a political weapon; it has a chilling and, frankly, Nixonian effect on those who wish to speak their mind."
Lerner told the AP that about 75 tax exempt political groups were targeted, though she said it was not motivated by political bias and that high level IRS officials were in the dark about the practice.
It is unclear if any of those groups were from Utah. As the top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, Hatch drafted two letters to IRS leaders criticizing them for playing politics by targeting tea party groups for special review, while leaving similar political entities supporting Democrats alone.
Tea party groups from states such as Kentucky, Ohio and Texas complained of receiving excessive IRS inquiries about their operations, including requests to see their donor lists, which tax-exempt groups do not have to legally provide.
The American Civil Liberties Union called for clear checks to make sure such targeting doesn’t happen in the future.
"Even the appearance of playing partisan politics with the tax code is about as constitutionally troubling as it gets," said Michael Macleod-Ball, chief of staff of the ACLU Washington office.
The inappropriate IRS reviews came during a spike in the number of tax-exempt political groups, organized to keep their donors private. A group can maintain tax-exempt status if at least half of its money is spent advocating for an issue, not directly for or against a candidate.
Hatch benefited from such groups, namely Freedom Path, which spent heavily to support his 2012 reelection efforts, and he also was opposed by FreedomWorks, a tea-party affiliated organization that has a tax-exempt foundation.
IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman told the House of Representatives in March 2012 that his employees were not targeting groups based on political views. It is unclear when IRS leaders learned of the practice of targeting tea party organizations.
Hatch promised to seek such details.
"The American people deserve to know who at the IRS learned about this unlawful activity, when they learned about it, and what they did, or did not do, when they did learn about it," he said.
Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.