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News reports this week confirmed what conservative nonprofits had long suspected: for years, the Internal Revenue Service has been reviewing their applications for tax-free status with extra scrutiny. An internal audit reveals that IRS officers in Cincinnati targeted nonprofits with terms like “tea party” and “patriot” in their names for more intense reviews. We get an update on the story.
- Max Stier President and CEO, Partnership for Public Service
- Larry Nordvig Executive Director, Richmond Tea Party
- Juliet Eilperin White House Correspondent, The Washington Post
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, a debut novel makes waves using fiction to explore the conflict in Chechnya, but, first, new revelations about the taxman targeting Tea Party activists. This week, news reports confirmed what many conservative activists have long suspected that the Internal Revenue Service has been improperly scrutinizing nonprofits with words like Tea Party and patriot in their title and skepticism of government in their mission.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAccording to reports, a field office in Cincinnati, Ohio, slow-walked their applications for tax-free status and compelled them to answer a long list of intrusive questions. The revelations have angered leaders across the political spectrum and raised unwelcome historical comparisons to Richard Nixon's infamous political enemies' list. Joining us to talk about this by phone is Juliet Eilperin, White House correspondent for The Washington Post. Juliet Eilperin, thank you for joining us.
MS. JULIET EILPERINOf course, Kojo. Happy to do it.
NNAMDILarry Nordvig is the executive director of the Richmond Tea Party. Larry Nordvig, thank you for joining us.
MR. LARRY NORDVIGHi. Glad to be here, Kojo.
NNAMDIAnd Max Stier is president and CEO with the Partnership for Public Service. Max, welcome.
MR. MAX STIERThank you so much.
NNAMDIYou, too, can join this conversation. Call us at 800-433-8850. What do you think? What was your reaction to these revelations? 800-433-8850. President Obama at today's press conference saying he did not get details about this until this past Friday. And if in fact the information is correct, then anyone who was involved needs to be held accountable for this.
NNAMDIJuliet Eilperin, for years, conservative activists have been complaining about the way the IRS was handling their applications for tax-free status, alleging that the applications were being slow-walked, that they were being unfairly subjected to long questionnaires and follow-ups. For years, senior members of the IRS had been denying that anything was going on, but in the past few weeks, we've learned that these concerns were very much justified. What exactly do we know right now?
EILPERINWell, a few different things. We know that they revised their criteria multiple times, but at certain times, they were specifically singling out, you know, a number of groups by -- just by their name, whether they had Tea Party, patriot or 912 in it. We also know that they subjected them to different tests, for example, whether they criticized the government, whether they said that they didn't like how the government was being run or if they thought they were educating Americans on the Constitution and Bill of Rights.
EILPERINThose were also red flags that caused them to basically subject these groups, including, you know, for example, the Richmond Tea Party to extensive questions about whether it's -- who their donors are, who spoke at their event, how they chose their speaker, their connection to elected officials, of -- they looked at 298 groups with special scrutiny according to documents we have of which 72 had Tea Party in their title, 13 patriot and 11 912. So that gives you a sense of what they were looking at.
NNAMDILarry Nordvig, your organization, the Richmond Tea Party, applied for tax-free status in December 2009. It received that designation in July of 2012, almost three years later. At what point did you begin to feel, to believe that you were being treated differently?
NORDVIGWell, I have to answer that in two ways. One would be that we expected that this would take six months to a year. I would think that would be reasonable if there's a lot of questions that the IRS legitimately needs to ask, but when it started getting past a year and we got the feeling that we were being stonewalled, just the passage of time would be one answer to that question.
NORDVIGThe other was the second series of questions, as you've just been discussing, were getting very, very personal, where they were asking for IDs of members. They were asking for copies of communications, just the kind of things that raises eyebrows and makes you think, you know, there's more to this than just a simple 501 (C)(4) going on here.
NNAMDIWhat was your reaction, Larry, to this story as it unfolded on Friday? Was it aha I thought so?
NORDVIGYes. It was a little bit of a bombshell, of course, because they apologized first with really without being pressed directly by, you know, a Tea Party group. I know my personal reaction was quite a bit of surprise, but many members thought: See, we told you so. And I'd say that was the general reaction.
NNAMDIDid you accept the apology?
NORDVIGWell, you know, that's a good question. I very much appreciate, and the Richmond Tea Party appreciates that the IRS has finally admitted to targeting conservative groups like ours, but frankly, a simple apology will not do. And the reason I say that is this is -- this should concern all Americans, not just conservatives or, you know, any particular Tea Party group because this touches on the very fundamental rights of free speech and free association. So, really, this is an issue for everybody to be very, very concerned about.
NNAMDIAnd if you are concerned, you can give us a call, 800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com expressing your opinion, your thoughts or your question. What was your reaction to these revelations? You can also send us a tweet, @kojoshow, or simply go to our website, kojoshow.org, and join the conversation there. Max Stier, this story appears to bring in to question whether the IRS is truly nonpartisan.
STIERKojo, thank you for starting there, and clearly, what happened there was wrong. But I think it's very important here not to throw out the baby with the bathwater. And on the comment that you raised here about whether the IRS is in fact partisan, it's important to remember that there are in fact only two political appointees at the IRS, and the commissioner of the IRS, the top person has a five-year term.
STIERThe commissioner who was in charge during the period of relevance here was a Bush administration appointee, and, frankly, someone I know who was a terrific leader. So it is clearly a terrible thing that occurred here. I do not think we want to assume that all of the stereotypes and generalizations that people have of the IRS are therefore right because if we do so, I think we're doing ourselves harm.
STIERThe IRS performs important and critical functions for this country. IRS employees -- there's 100,000 of them -- are doing their job and many other contexts extraordinarily well. And what I would hate to see is frankly an overreaction. It's wrong what happened here. It needs to be addressed. It is a real problem, but that does not mean that the IRS itself is either partisan or that the IRS is a broken organization.
NNAMDIJuliet Eilperin, the Richmond Tea Party filed requests in late 2009, as I mentioned, but this story really seems to take root in 2010, in the aftermath of the Citizens United Supreme Court decision and an explosion in so-called social welfare organizations. Can you please explain?
EILPERINAbsolutely. And I think everyone would agree that's what led to the mistakes that we saw. What happened is in the aftermath of the 2010 Supreme Court decision, which both allowed corporations and unions to raise and spend unlimited sums on campaigns. What you saw as it opened up this opportunity for groups to petition from, as you said, the social welfare status, which meant they could get self - tax-exempt status if their "primary purpose was not targeting candidates in elections."
EILPERINAnd so they could do some of that. They could, you know, do lobbying and things like that, but their primary purpose could not be they could work on issues rather than targeting candidates. And so what you saw is the number of applications for this particular social welfare group status more doubled since 2010.
EILPERINAnd so the IRS was flooded with these requests, and they were trying in this ambiguous world to come up with a criteria from which they could examine whether these groups were primarily political or whether they were doing -- were they were issue advocacy groups that to some extent engaged in politics.
NNAMDIWe've got an email from Beth in D.C. who says: The entire tax-exempt classification for these "social welfare political groups is bogus baloney." Whether conservative or liberals, such groups are pretending to be something they are not. The whole mess should be cleaned up, and this special classification should be eliminated all together -- what -- bunked. For purposes of clarification, Larry Nordvig, could you tell us exactly what the Richmond Tea Party patriots does?
NORDVIGYes. And actually, I'd love to answer that question. The first thing I'd like to say is what the 501 (c)(4) allows us to do is political education and advocacy. We are not allowed to turn into a campaign machine. And in fact, the Richmond Tea Party is nonpartisan. A lot of people perceive us as an arm of the GOP, and that's simply not correct. I myself backed an independent last year.
NORDVIGSo, you know, that's kind of what it allows us to do. It basically let's get some tax breaks for purchases as we do business. It does not allow people to write off donations on their taxes, but it does a very important thing, and that is allows donors to remain anonymous. It would have a very chilling effect on our donor base if they thought that their names would be made public. Some people just are uncomfortable with that in the political realm. So it's important.
NORDVIGThe other thing I'd like to address very, very quickly is I kind of agree with the facts that the way the tax set up is, is bunked. You know, we are the Tea Party, the tax enough already party. And frankly, we don't think that everybody working for the IRS is evil or anything like that, but we just think that the tax system is too bureaucratic, too big government, too open to the possibility of abuses just like we saw, and we'd like to see the country get back to a consumer base tax instead of what we have now.
NNAMDIHere is Jessie in Dulles, Va. Jessie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JESSIEOh, thanks, Kojo. It's great to be here. I guess, I wanted to ask -- I mean I understand how the IRS was sort of targeting conservative groups, as you said, and that's a huge problem. But shouldn't it be that -- I mean, if you have Tea Party in your name and you're saying you're not political, then, yes, that's cause for a greater level scrutiny.
JESSIEI think -- but I'd say the same thing if you had progressive in your name. I mean, it isn't the issue here that one side was being targeted and when both sides should. And I'm not saying that they shouldn't get the tax-exempt status. I'm just saying for deeper level of scrutiny, shouldn't it be both sides that it goes both ways?
NNAMDIJuliet, we heard Max Stier say that we should not think of the IRS as politically partisan, but these revelations have left a lot of people searching for historical analogies. Some see a direct comparison to the Nixon administration and its use of the IRS to target so-called enemies. A local example comes to mind when authorities in Maryland monitors the actions of anti-war and anti-death penalty activists under the auspices of counterterrorism. But what can we extrapolate in this case?
EILPERINWell, I think at this point it's too early to tell because certainly reporters like myself are looking to see what level of involvement, you know, so, for example, political appointees had in this, as I think Max pointed out, there are only two political appointees to the IRS. One is the commissioner. The other is the chief counsel. And the president at this point is saying that he only learned about it when the public learned about it on Friday.
EILPERINSo certainly with Nixon -- President Nixon and what happened there, this was a campaign that was orchestrated out of the White House. And at this point, we have no evidence to believe that we are certainly looking at right now to figure out what were their, you know, was there any involvement and political appointees in this and to what extent did, you know, or the party affiliation to simply these employees in Cincinnati as well as Lois Lerner, the head of the tax-exempt division, whether, you know, that played a role in their criteria?
NNAMDIJessie, thank you very much for your call. Max Stier, even if this appears at this point to be the actions of one specific office, responsibility clearly goes higher than that. If you're willing to concede that there was nothing deliberately underhanded going on, and for many people, that's a very big if. This seems to be an example of what happens when higher-level government executives and political appointees do not give clear orders and guidance to government workers.
STIERKojo, respectfully, I'm not sure that that's the cause here. I think, again, that Juliet has the first point right which is we do not have all the facts. So, you know, this is tricky terrain until we know more about what exactly happened. But what we do know is that the IRS, as an institution, isn't -- it was deliberately isolated from political pressure so that it has a very limited number of political appointees. The top job having, you know, term of point, and then as I mentioned earlier, was a Bush administration appointee.
STIERThe, you know, the challenge here is that clearly something went wrong, and clearly, there are people who are responsible for that going wrong. I think if you ask me what my intuition is that part of the problem here is that simply the workload question that Juliet had raised earlier, you saw more than a doubling of these submissions for 501 (c)(4) status.
STIERAnd, frankly, the IRS is in a position now where they are buried with the work that they're being asked to do, and it's only getting worse. So I can't help but raise the fact that in about 10 days, the entire IRS is going to be closed down because all the employees are going to be put on furlough, one of five days that will be furloughed between now and the end of the fiscal year, making a bad situation even worse.
STIERI think that one of the lessons that we need to examine here is whether we are putting too much pressure on our government where workloads are increasing, and doing more with less is simply not possible. So, again, no excuses, no excuses for what happened there. But I think we will see more mistakes, more bad things happening if we're not careful about adequately resourcing the government that we have.
NNAMDIAnd, of course, the question lingers, if IRS workers are being forced for whatever reasons to take shortcuts, why do the shortcuts only seemed to be targeting one side? However, Mark in Catonsville, Md., seems to feel that the IRS was, in this situation, Mark, you say reasonable?
MARKYes. I think it was -- it's a reasonable assumption to, you know, I mean, if an organization has Tea Party in its name, does anybody assert that the Tea Party is not a political movement? Not to say that...
NNAMDIWould the same thing apply to an organization that has the word progressive in its name?
MARKYes. Sure. No problem. But I think there are trying to do their job, you know, and yes, it should be. Of course, it should be on both sides. But I would hope that they would really investigate all these to see if they're worthy of that special status. That status is not a right. It's a privilege.
NNAMDIOK. Thank you very much for your call.
NNAMDII'll go to Laverne in Washington, D.C. Laverne, your turn.
LAVERNEYes. Hi. We've always had a history of scrutiny of groups suspect of being anti-U.S. And regardless of whatever side we support, we have high-profile individuals in these Tea Party groups -- let's be specific -- who are associated with (word?) from the U.S., anarchist. So what's the difference between scrutiny of these groups and any other group that -- let's say a group that applied for such protection as a Muslim group, a Muslim organization. We have scrutinized Muslim organizations. We continue to do that. What's the difference between scrutinizing them and scrutinizing a Tea Party group?
NNAMDILaverne, I suspect that whether it is libertarian, as in people who want to maybe secede from the U.S. or whether it is religious, Juliet Eilperin will tell you that the emphasis here is not on either of those things. It's on whether the organization is political. Is that correct, Juliet Eilperin?
EILPERINAnd specific -- right. Political and specifically engaged in campaign activity that that as, you know, as Larry pointed out, that you can be involved in politics and you can engage deeply in issue advocacy. But if you start targeting candidates and tried and help elect people, that's what -- is what would disqualify you. And that's why they were subjected to intense scrutiny.
NNAMDILarry Nordvig, care to comment?
NORDVIGYeah. I think, you know, really, what we're talking about here again is your basic First Amendment right to free speech and free association. As you wisely pointed out, if you substitute the word the green or justice or progressive for the word Tea Party or patriot, you know, put yourself on the other side. No matter what your political stripe, you don't want this specific political targeting through the IRS to be ever part of our governmental system.
NORDVIGThis actually shut down a lot of our ability to have a dialogue in the public square when it came to politics. We had invest thousands of dollars, hundreds and hundreds of man hours from a large group of people to present hundreds of pages of documents. And it took away our ability to do our mission, which was education and advocacy. Really, this kind of targeting -- frankly, they have no excuse because they already apologized, meaning that they admit it's wrong. And what you don't want is you don't want to shut down people's free speech.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Laverne. George in Richmond, Va., your turn.
GEORGEGood afternoon. Yeah, I pretty much just going to echo what's already been said regardless of political stripe. Somebody used an IRS. Well, there's one, two, three or 12 people within an organization targeting one political group or another is a bunch of nonsense. They need to find out who the people are, strip them of their job and throw them in jail. That's a gross overstep of their governmental authority.
NNAMDIGeorge, thank you very much for your call. Juliet Eilperin, these revelations would have made waves no matter the circumstances. But part of the reason members of Congress are expressing outrage is because it appears that they might have been mislead. There were, apparently, numerous examples of IRS officials telling them that this kind of behavior was not taking place.
EILPERINRight. On multiple occasions, particularly back last year in 2012, you had the commissioner, Douglas Shulman of the IRS, who said that, you know, that they -- that the IRS was not targeting groups because they were conservative. And again, there are a couple of members of Congress, a couple of Republicans, Congressman Boustany and Congressman Kemp, both of whom repeatedly pressed the IRS on this question. And again and again, they said, no, we will not, you know, we're not engaged in this conduct.
EILPERINSo that's one of the reasons why you're seeing such a high-level of outrage, that this was something that has, you know, again, as you're hearing, members of the Tea Party felt that they were being subject to unusual scrutiny. This wasn't, again, it wasn't really a secret this was going on. And so they were complaining to their members of Congress. And when they tried to follow up on it, they were essentially blocked from getting that information from the IRS.
NNAMDIMax Stier, you get the last word. We all know that the IRS is not the most beloved agency in the federal government, but you warned us not to throw out the baby with the bathwater to make sure that we understand exactly what happened before we take any action?
STIERYeah, and that's exactly right. It is really important not to overreact. The two other things I would note is it's not the most popular organization, the IRS, but it's vital to our country. And, in fact, if you look at customer satisfaction surveys, it does really darn well. I mean, it provides a very, very strong and good service.
STIERWhat happened here is wrong, but that does not represent everything the IRS did. I would also note, as a last point, which is this came out because our government did the right thing. The inspector general for the IRS was asked to investigate. They found out what occurred, and they issued this report. And it's been mentioned earlier the IRS has apologized even before the report came out. Did they do it because the report was coming out?
STIERI don't know. But the point here is the system worked. Complaints were made, complaints were heard, investigation was had, and we're finding out what exactly happened. Now, there's some more to be done, but we really need to be careful about how far we go 'cause we do not want to hurt an organization that's so important in many other kinds of respect.
NNAMDIMax Stier is president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service. Larry Nordvig is executive director of the Richmond Tea Party, and Juliet Eilperin is White House correspondent for The Washington Post. Thank you all for joining us. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, a debut novel makes waves using fiction to explore the conflict in Chechnya. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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