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May 13th, 2013
06:40 PM ET

Report: IRS singled out conservatives beyond the tea party

Distrust of big government writ large, and of the Internal Revenue Service more specifically, are cornerstones of the tea party ethos. Now, it looks like the IRS went and proved their point for them.

President Obama said he didn't know the IRS was singling-out conservative groups until the news broke.

"I first learned about it from the same news reports that I think most people learned about this," Obama said Monday. "If you've got the IRS operating in anything less than a neutral and non-partisan way, then that is outrageous... I've got no patience with it, I will not tolerate it, and I will make sure that we find out exactly what happened on this."

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said a Treasury Department Inspector General did notify the White House counsel's office that it was finishing its report on these practices.

But Carney says the counsel's office did not tell the president about it before it hit the press. The report is coming out this week, and it has outrageous conclusions about how organizations seeking tax-exempt status were handled. It shows that not only did tea party groups get more scrutiny, but so did a host of other conservative groups that dared to criticize government spending and the national debt.

This news comes after Lois Learner, the IRS director for tax-exempt groups, admitted that agents flagged certain applications for review, based on keywords like "tea party" and "patriot."

Politically-motivated audits are so obviously wrong, they have even been comedy fodder for the president. When he visited Arizona State University in 2009, and they wouldn't give him an honorary degree because he was so new, Obama joked, "President Crow and the board of regents will soon learn about being audited by the IRS."

After that came the birth of the tea party in 2010. Some of these conservative groups suspected they were being treated differently by the IRS.

But IRS commissioner Douglas Shulman, appointed by former President George W. Bush, assured Congress in 2012 that wasn't the case. Shulman retired in November.

"We pride ourselves on being a non-political, non-partisan organization," Shulman said in March 2012. "There's absolutely no targeting, this is the kind of back-and-forth that happens when people apply for 501(c)(4) status."

But the report coming out this week says IRS officials knew nine months before, in June 2011, that conservative groups were being targeted. The IRS says the number of tax-exempt applications doubled between 2010 and 2012. It released a statement Friday essentially blaming the workload and the workflow for the decision to categorize applications.

The IRS says there was nothing partisan or political about it. But the criticism heading their way is unrelenting and bipartisan.

Jenny Beth Martin, national co-ordinator for the group Tea Party Patriots, said the group filed for 501(c)(4) and 501(c)(3) status several years ago.

"The IRS has been stringing us along for years," said Martin.

Martin said the IRS sent letters questioning posts on the group's Facebook page, emails the group had sent, and asking for the names of Senators and congressman the group's supporters had talked to.

"Some of this information was impossible for us to collect, we're a voluntarily-affiliated organization, we don't even know everyone who's affiliated with us," said Martin. "And some of it is really none of the IRS' business."

Sen. Al Franken, D-Minnesota, said the process should be completely nonpartisan and unbiased, and that the people responsible for this should be held accountable.

"But these are ... 501(c)(4)s, and in order to be tax-exempt, in order for people to give them money and also not be disclosed who they are, the 501(c)(4) has to spend at least 50% plus $1 on actual social welfare," said Franken. "Some of these organizations have been - you know, it looks like they've been spending more on just pure politics. So, it's a legitimate inquiry by the IRS."

There are legitimate questions whether groups with a clear political agenda should get this special tax-exempt status.

"With a 501(c)(4) status you're allowed to have an agenda, you're allowed to be concerned about issues," said Martin.

"We stand up for fiscal responsibility, constitutionally-limited government, and free markets," said Martin. "We've never even endorsed a candidate."

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