Groups tell of IRS abuse, Ways and Means chief promises to look at IRS employees

McClatchy Washington BureauJune 4, 2013 

WASHINGTONFueled by fresh, terse testimony Tuesday from conservative groups detailing intense IRS scrutiny, a powerful lawmaker with watchdog responsibility for the agency promised a relentless effort to get answers from officials at all levels of the Internal Revenue Service.

“We know that Americans were affected by the culture of political intimidation and discrimination that was cultivated by this targeting,” Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich., chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said during a hearing to get victims’ testimony. “At its core, this investigation is about how and why the IRS was empowered and allowed to use a broken tax code to abuse individuals based on their beliefs – and seemingly only based on their beliefs.”

The committee heard from representatives of six conservative groups claiming harassment by the IRS. They had a common refrain: “The IRS needs to be fully investigated and held accountable for its incompetence, harassment and targeting of conservative groups,” said Dianne Belsom, president of the Laurens County Tea Party in South Carolina.

At one point, witnesses named the IRS officials they want the committee to examine further. Camp was sympathetic.

“Learning firsthand from you about how the IRS used the tax code to intimidate and harass you will help us take the steps necessary to make sure this never happens again,” he said.

Democrats acknowledged that the Internal Revenue Service appears to have overreached. But for the first time since committees began hearing testimony on the controversy last month, they also fought back, saying the agency must provide some level of scrutiny to applications for tax-exempt status.

Ways and Means staff members are joining staff from the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee to jointly interview IRS employees, Camp said. The oversight committee plans a hearing Thursday on IRS matters. The Department of Justice and a Treasury Department inspector general also are probing allegations of misdeeds.

Tuesday’s hearing, which lasted more than three hours, came at the same time the Treasury Department Inspector General for Tax Administration released a report detailing how the Internal Revenue Service spent taxpayer money lavishly in 2010 on upscale conferences and videos of employees learning to line dance.

Tuesday’s hearings included another wrinkle into alleged political motivation by the IRS. Ways and Means members learned details of a tax document listing donors to a group opposed to gay marriage alleged to have been leaked illegally from within the Internal Revenue Service.

The group posting the document, the Human Rights Campaign, calls itself the nation’s largest lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights group. It has close ties to the Obama administration – and allegedly camouflaged the IRS document to hide its source, according to accusers.

The allegation came from John Eastman, a California law professor and chairman of the National Organization for Marriage, a conservative organization opposed to gay marriage rights, which are expanding nationwide.

Eastman said inside help was given to the Human Rights Campaign, which on March 30, 2012, posted a copy of a Form 990 Schedule B from 2008 filed by the National Organization for Marriage. The document included confidential donor names and donation details provided to the Internal Revenue Service.

The anti-gay marriage group first published its allegations against the IRS on its website this spring and called for a federal probe to identify who leaked the document.

The National Organization for Marriage’s 2008 tax filing included information about a $10,000 donation from the political action committee Free and Strong America, which is tied to former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. The donation had not been disclosed to the Federal Election Commission by the PAC, though it had been disclosed at the state level by an Alabama-based chapter of the PAC, according to Human Rights Campaign.

The confidential donor list in the tax filing was republished by the Huffington Post, which wrote about the Romney PAC donation. The Huffington Post wrote that the document was given to the HRC by a “whistleblower.”

At the time the document was posted, the Human Rights Campaign was run by a major fundraiser for President Barack Obama’s re-election effort, and today is run by another.

Chad Griffin, the president of the Human Rights Campaign, has been a major fundraiser for Democrats and sat on the national finance committee of Obama’s re-election campaign. Griffin joined the Human Rights Campaign in April 2012, and his predecessor, Joe Solmonese, was named in February 2012 one of 35 national campaign co-chairs for the Obama re-election effort. Solmonese’s last day was March 31, 2012, a day after the confidential tax document was published on his group’s website. The group’s media office did not return phone and email requests for comment.

A constitutional law professor at Chapman University School of Law in Orange, Calif., Eastman told lawmakers that the gay-rights group redacted portions of the confidential tax document that showed an internal IRS stamp that does not appear on documentation shared with taxpayers. The stamp is only seen internally by the IRS.

By publishing the names of the confidential donors to the group, the Human Rights Campaign subjected these donors to harassment from individuals who did not share their view, Eastman said. When group members sought information about the leak of confidential information, they were told by the IRS that the agency could not discuss confidential taxpayer information.

“I ask you to think about the irony of that,” Eastman testified.

South Carolina’s Belsom told lawmakers how her application for tax-exempt status in 2011 dragged into late 2012 amid “extremely burdensome” requests for documentation.

The IRS asked for copies of the group’s articles of incorporation, something Belsom said accompanied her original application, and wanted copies of the group’s work on social media websites, names of its speakers and whether guest speakers ever commented about elections.

About a dozen people in the packed hearing room burst into applause after Becky Gerritson, head of the Wetumpka Tea Party in Alabama, choked back tears as she spoke.

“I want to preserve and protect the America that I grew up in. . . . I am terrified that it is slipping away,” she said.

Anti-abortion activist Sue Martinek, who heads Coalition for Life for Iowa and was profiled last week by McClatchy, won sympathy from the top Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee because her group was told its approval would be conditioned on its members refraining from picketing women’s health provider Planned Parenthood.

That was “totally worse than inappropriate,” said Rep. Sander Levin, D-Mich. “You should not have been asked that. And as personnel of the IRS are inquired of, I would think that may be looked into.”

The hearing at times descended into political bickering. Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., reminded the witnesses that their free speech rights remained intact, they were free to express themselves and the only issue in question was the delay of their seeking a tax subsidy from the government via the tax-exempt status.

“We’re talking about a tax break. If you didn’t come in and ask for this tax break, you never would have had a question asked of you,” McDermott said, adding that “Republicans are looking for a conspiracy where there isn’t one.”

He was followed by Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, who was on the Republican presidential ticket last year for his pull with conservative groups such as the tea party.

“So you’re to blame, I guess is the message here,” Ryan sarcastically told the assembled conservative witnesses as the audience snickered.

Email: khall@mcclatchydc.com, Twitter: @KevinGHall; Email: dlightman@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @LightmanDavid

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