The New York Times has published an article about what some of the groups the IRS subjected to scrutiny actually did. And it is very informative. It would appear that many of these people were lying about their activities or “understood” their political activities to not be political. Seriously:
At least some of the conservative groups that are complaining about I.R.S. treatment were clearly involved in election activities on behalf of Republicans or against Democrats. When CVFC, the veterans’ group, first applied for I.R.S. recognition in early 2010, it stated that it did not plan to spend any money on politics. The group, whose full name in its application was CVFC 501(c)(4), listed an address shared with a political organization called Combat Veterans for Congress PAC. CVFC told the I.R.S. that it planned to e-mail veterans about ways in which they “may engage in government” and provide “social welfare programs to assist combat veterans to get involved in government.”
But later in 2010, as it awaited an I.R.S. ruling, the organization spent close to $8,000 on radio ads backing Michael Crimmins, a Republican and a former Marine, for a House seat in San Diego, according to Federal Election Commission records.
The spending is not detailed in the group’s tax return for 2010, raising questions about whether it properly accounted for the expense to the I.R.S. The group also checked off a box marked “No” when asked if it had engaged in direct or indirect political activities on behalf of a candidate for political office.
The group received two rounds of questions from the I.R.S. in 2012, according to its lawyer, Dan Backer. They included queries about the group’s donors and its exact relationship with Combat Veterans for Congress PAC. The agency also asked about CVFC’s activities, but the group neglected to bring up its radio ads in its follow-up responses.
Mr. Backer called the agency’s questions “sweepingly overbroad” and said the group had answered them appropriately.
In Alabama, the Wetumpka Tea Party organized a day of training for its members and other Tea Party activists across the region in the run-up to the 2012 election. The training was held under the auspices of the Adopt-a-State program, a nationwide effort that encouraged Tea Party groups in safely red or blue states to support Tea Party groups in battleground states working to get out the vote for Republicans.
Adopt-a-State was a key component of Code Red USA, a get-out-the-vote initiative organized by a conservative political action committee. The goal of Code Red USA was made clear in one of its fund-raising videos, which told supporters: “On Nov. 6, 2012, Code Red USA authorizes the defeat of President Barack Obama.”
Becky Gerritson, Wetumpka’s president, said in an e-mailed statement that her group engaged “mostly in education on all sorts of topics” and that the day of training was just one of a variety of events that it held for “educational purposes.”
Some groups appeared to be confused or misinformed about the I.R.S. rules applying to their activity.
Tom Zawistowski, president of the Ohio Liberty Coalition, another Tea Party group that has complained about the scrutiny it received from the I.R.S., sent out regular e-mails to members about Romney campaign events and organized protests around the state to “demand the truth about Benghazi” when Mr. Obama visited before the 2012 election. The coalition also canvassed neighborhoods, handing out Romney campaign “door hangers,” Mr. Zawistowski said.
The I.R.S. usually considers such activities to be partisan. But when Mr. Zawistowski consulted his group’s lawyers, he said, he came away understanding that the I.R.S. was most concerned with radio or television advertising. He said he believed that other activities, like distributing literature for the Romney campaign, would not raise concerns.
“It’s not political activity,” he said.
I don’t think you need a lawyer to know whether passing out campaign literature for a candidate is political. If you do, it’s probably best not to be involved in politics.
The article explains something I’ve been wondering about from the beginning: how does the IRS usually do this sort of thing? It turns out that they do a pretty thorough investigation:
But some former I.R.S. officials disputed several of Mr. George’s conclusions, including his assertion that it was inappropriate to ask groups about their donors, or whether their leaders had plans to run for public office. While unusual, the former officials said, such questions are not prohibited if relevant to an application under consideration.
“The I.G. was as careless with terminology as the Cincinnati office was,” said Marcus S. Owens, who headed the I.R.S.’s exempt organizations division until 2000. “Half of those questions have been found to be germane in court decisions.”
I.R.S. agents are obligated to determine whether a 501(c)(4) group is primarily promoting “social welfare.” While such groups are permitted some election involvement, it cannot be an organization’s primary activity. That judgment does not hinge strictly on the proportion of funds a group spends on campaign ads, but on an amorphous mix of facts and circumstances.
“If you have a thousand volunteer hours and only spend a dollar, but those volunteers are to help a particular candidate, that’s a problem,” Mr. Tobin said.
Agents may examine when and for how long a group advocates policy positions, in part to see whether those positions are associated with a specific candidate, which can be relevant to the group’s tax status, tax lawyers and former I.R.S. officials said.
Agents may look at what a group publishes in print or on a Web site, whether it provides funds to other organizations involved in elections or whether a group’s officers are also employed by political parties. They may also consider other public information, former officials and tax experts said, though they are required to ask the organization to provide those materials or comment on them before the information can be included in an application review.
“My experience has been that the agents immediately start Googling to see what the organization is doing outside of the application,” said Kevin J. Shortill, a former tax law specialist in the I.R.S.’s exempt organization division. “And that explains why you get these requests for information like, ‘Please print out your Web site and send it in.’ ”
I’m pretty sure that if I had a 501c4 I’d assume all that. But apparently, the expectation was that the IRS was going to rubber stamp their applications.
I would have assumed the IRS would be more politically sophisticated than to devise the crude screen they used during those cycles. But they did have an obligation to check. And this article showed they were right to be suspicious. A bunch of conservative 501c4 groups were directly involved in campaigning. And then they just played dumb …