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Topics: House Oversight

New emails show IRS targeting of Tea Party groups followed demands by Obama, congressional Democrats

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Mark Tapscott,Watchdog,Tea Party,Campaign Finance,IRS,First Amendment,Justice Department,Lois Lerner,House Oversight

Former Internal Revenue Service executive Lois Lerner launched the federal tax agency's program targeting Tea Party and conservative non-profits in 2010 because “we won't be able to stay out of this -- we need a plan.”

Lerner’s comment came in an Aug. 31, 2010, email to IRS Tax Exempt and Government Entities Commissioner Sarah Hall Ingram. That email was referring specifically to a lawsuit filed by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee against Americans for Prosperity.

We need to have a plan. We need to be cautious so it isn't a per se political project.

The previously undisclosed Lerner email was cited in a new report released Monday by the majority staff of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which has been investigating the IRS scandal for more than a year.

Lerner was held in contempt of Congress earlier this year after twice refusing to answer questions from committee members about her role in the scandal.

Americans for Prosperity had been repeatedly singled out by President Obama and congressional Democrats following a controversial Jan. 21, 2010, Supreme Court decision as one of many “shadowy groups with harmless sounding names” that were “spending virtually unlimited amounts of funds” opposing the chief executive's policies.

The High Court overruled federal campaign finance law restrictions on political speech by individuals, groups and corporations, holding that the First Amendment “has its fullest and most urgent application to speech uttered during a campaign for political office.”

The report said that “in almost daily campaign stops in the run-up to the 2010 midterm election, the president loudly and repeatedly criticized the Citizens United decision and emphasized that the decision, in his mind, largely benefited Republican candidates.”

Citing dozens of examples from Obama speeches and those of other Democrats, the report said “these remarks and statements are in addition to other public statements from senior White House advisors, the Democratic National Committee, and prominent national Democrats to the same effect.”

Two weeks after saying the IRS would not be able to avoid involvement in the issues raised by the president, Lerner emailed her staff on Sept. 15, 2010, saying, “We need to have a plan. We need to be cautious so it isn’t a per se political project. More a c4 project that will look at levels of lobbying and pol. activity along with exempt activity.”

The specific provision of the IRS code for tax-exempt non-profit groups like Americans for Prosperity is found in Section 501(C)(4).

The exemption has been in the tax code since a 1955 ruling by the agency in a case concerning an unnamed group whose mission was “to encourage government to practice wise economy in public spending,” according to a Case Western University law professor cited by the Wall Street Journal's Law blog.

In other previously undisclosed emails and documents included in the report made public Monday, the report described an Oct. 8, 2010, meeting between Lerner and other IRS officials with officials from the Justice Department's Public Integrity Section:

An IRS memorandum summarizing the meeting confirms that the discussion resulted from recent media attention on ‘the political activity of exempt organizations."

This document also demonstrates that the president’s political rhetoric contributed to the Justice Department’s examination of nonprofit political speech. Using the same words used by the president on the campaign trail, the memorandum explained:

“The [Public Integrity] section’s attorneys expressed concern that certain section 501(c) organizations are actually political committees ‘posing’ as if they are not subject to FEC law, and therefore may be subject to criminal liability.”

The report also included a Feb. 13, 2012, email from Lerner to a dozen high-ranking IRS officials in which she endorsed a bill proposed by Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., that was the chief reform vehicle introduced by congressional Democrats in response to the Citizens United decision. Obama had also endorsed the measure.

In a related development Monday, an attorney for one of the Tea Party groups subjected to the IRS targeting derided the claim that nearly two years worth of emails to and from Lerner to and from individuals in other federal agencies and outside the government were lost as a result of a “computer crash.”

Noting multiple federal laws that require preservation of all emails concerning official government business, attorney Cleta Mitchell said, “the failure for the IRS to preserve and provide these records to the Committees would evidence either violations of numerous records retention statutes and regulations or obstruction of Congress.”

Mitchell’s comment came in a blistering letter to Justice Department officials and an attorney defending the government against a civil suit she filed on behalf of True the Vote, a Houston-based Tea Party group that trains poll workers and voter registrars in ways to detect vote fraud.

Mitchell demanded to know “what steps did each of you, as counsel for the Defendants, each of them, take to ensure that any and all documents as described in the litigation hold letter and as required by federal law were, in fact, preserved?”

Mark Tapscott is executive editor of the Washington Examiner.
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Mark Tapscott

Executive Editor
The Washington Examiner