By Dave Levinthal, Center for Public Integrity
Amid withering accusations the Internal Revenue Service targeted tea party and other conservative groups with enhanced scrutiny, the agency faces another problem: it’s drowning in paperwork.
The IRS’ Exempt Organizations Division, which finds itself at the scandal’s epicenter, processed significantly more tax exemption applications in fiscal year 2012 by so-called 501(c)(4) “social welfare” organizations — 2,774 — than it has since at least the late 1990s, according to an analysis of IRS records by the Center for Public Integrity.
Compare that to 1,777 applications in 2011 and 1,741 in 2010, federal records show. Not since 2002, when officials processed 2,402 applications, have so many been received.
Meanwhile, Exempt Organizations Division staffing slid from 910 employees during fiscal year 2009 to 876 during fiscal year 2012, agency personnel documents indicate.
In 2010, IRS officials projected exempt division staffing at 942 employees. But IRS officials cut the number to 900 after the agency began slashing its budget in response to fiscal woes affecting most corners of the federal government.
The agency said this weekend that a heavy workload prompted bureaucrats to “centralize” the “influx of advocacy applications” and, in the name of efficiency, scrutinize groups that contained more common phrases such as “tea party” in them.
“That was wrong, that was absolutely incorrect, insensitive and inappropriate — that’s not how we go about selecting cases for further review,” Lois Lerner, IRS exempt organizations director, said Friday. “We don’t select for review because they have a particular name.”
Lerner, who denied the targeting was politically motivated, added that about 75 groups with words such as “tea party” or “patriot” received extra scrutiny but none had its tax-exempt status revoked.
The IRS could not be reached for comment Monday.
For Washington, D.C.,-based attorney Dan Backer, who represents two tea party-affiliated organizations, blaming such actions on staffing cuts and increased workload is a “lame excuse” that the IRS should stop using.
“They could have hired new employees, they could have reallocated employees, they could have done a lot of things, the not doing of which doesn’t suddenly make it OK for them to engage in viewpoint discrimination,” said Backer, who said he is considering suing the IRS. “At worst, their staffing woes maybe justifies a growing backlog, not discriminating against those whose viewpoints they disagree with.”
IRS records show that applications of the most common nonprofit organizations — 501(c)(3) educational nonprofits, private foundations, charities and the like — have dropped this decade after reaching a high of more than 85,000 in fiscal 2007. Generally, this type of nonprofit entity must remain apolitical.
As for 501(c)(4) nonprofit organizations, such as the tea party groups in question, they may engage in politics so long as it isn’t their primary purpose.
During the 2012 election cycle, however, numerous 501(c)(4) organizations — most of them conservative, a few left-leaning and all endowed with new spending powers thanks to the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision — together spent tens of millions of dollars overtly advocating for or against political candidates.
And unlike super PACs, which may also raise and spend unlimited amounts of money, they’re not required to reveal their donors
Democrats primarily cried foul, accusing groups such as the Karl Rove-backed Crossroads GPS and Koch brothers-supported Americans for Prosperity of violating their tax-exempt status.
But the IRS has taken no definitive action against these or other nonprofit groups, and several campaign finance reform advocates have opined that this latest incident will further stymie their effort to convince the IRS to crack down on nonprofit groups they consider overridingly political.
As for tea party-named nonprofit groups, for all the attention now on them, they generally played bit roles during the 2012 election.
Of the more than 40 organizations that identified themselves as tea party-related in IRS documents, just one — the National Tea Party Group of California — reported assets of more than $100,000 in its most recent publicly available financial filing.
For now, Republicans and Democrats in Congress have called on the Obama administration to investigate the matter, and Obama himself described the IRS’ conduct as “outrageous.”
The Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration is expected to release a full report on the matter later this week, and officials in the House and Senate are promising hearings.
Karen Gries, an appointee to the IRS Advisory Committee on Tax Exempt and Government Entities, says she expects her committee will discuss the matter when it meets later this year.
In the meantime, Gries praised the overall performance of Lerner, the exempt organizations director, while expressing concern about her department’s ability to do its job.
“They are asked to do more with less resources,” said Gries, a principal at with accounting firm CliftonLarsonAllen LLP. “The EO group operates very lean.”