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Nothing new under the sun: Looking back at the IRS’ 1990s political abuses

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Politics,Beltway Confidential,Sean Higgins,IRS

As Washington continues to digest the news that the Internal Revenue Service was targeting for audits groups with the words like “Tea Party,” “Patriots” or “We the People” in their name, it is as good of a time as any to look back at 1999, the last time it was revealed the agency was used to intimidate and harass political groups, mainly those on the right.

Here’s a Nov. 15, 1999, Associated Press story:

Members of Congress and the White House have triggered audits of hundreds of tax-exempt groups this decade by lodging complaints with the Internal Revenue Service against their political foes.

The referrals range from citizen letters and newspaper articles to personal demands for investigations, according to documents reviewed by the Associated Press.

The White House once referred a constituent complaint about a group that had suggested presidential lawyer Vincent Foster had been murdered. Democratic lawmakers sought investigations of conservatives ranging from the Heritage Foundation to the Rev. Jerry Falwell.

And the Republican chairman of the House committee that writes tax laws sought an audit of a Buddhist temple in California after it was host for a Democratic fund-raiser featuring Vice President Al Gore

“It is my assumption that the Internal Revenue Service has commenced, or will soon commence, an investigation into these activities,” House Ways and Means Committee chairman Bill Archer wrote on Oct. 18, 1996, just three weeks before the presidential election.”

More than year later, the Hsi Lai Temple near Los Angeles was named as an unindicted co-conspirator in the indictment of a Democratic fundraiser.

Not all requests result in audits.

Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., an ally of the president, referred Falwell, an outspoken critic of Clinton, for investigation based on a constituent compaint in May 1993 that “religious broadcasters are using their tax-exempt status for political purposes.”

The congressman got a speedy reply, but the IRS didn’t audit Falwell. Five of his organizations had just been audited two years earlier.

While the AP story strives to portray this as a bipartisan problem, it is worth noting  that in addition to the Heritage Foundation and Falwell, other groups targeted for audits around that time period included: the National Rifle Association, the National Review, the American Spectator, Freedom Alliance, National Center for Public Policy Research, American Policy Center, American Cause (a group founded by Pat Buchanan), Citizens Against Government Waste, Citizens for Honest Government, Progress and Freedom Foundation, Concerned Women for America and the San Diego Chapter of Christian Coalition.

Back then the White House also denied that it had targeted these or other groups or people.

So what came of this? Nothing. A 2000 study by the Joint Committee on Taxation on the matter found: “no credible evidence that tax-exempt organizations were selected for examination, or that the IRS altered the manner in which examinations of tax-exempt organizations were conducted, based on the views espoused by the organizations or individuals related to the organization.” And with that, the matter was swept under the rug and forgotten.

Note that the committee found “no evidence… that the IRS altered the manner” in which audits took place. Which is to say the way the IRS was being used by the White House and members of Congress like Waxman was not outside the agency’s normal rules. That’s more worrisome than question of whether rules were broken. It is also something to bear in mind as this probe unfolds: It is the way the IRS legally operates that should concern us.

While we are on the subject the, the committee’s report in 2000 also detailed how the Clinton administration leaned on the IRS to get confidential information:

An aide to Vice President Al Gore contacted the Internal Revenue Service to obtain confidential tax information after a lower level staff member was rebuffed by the tax agency the same day, according to documents described today.

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Gore aides tried to obtain information about “the status of certain forms filed by members of a tax-exempt organization,” the study said. The vice president’s staff members first tried to get the information, which involved a union, from the Treasury Department. The department directed them to the IRS in violation of the department’s rules, according to the report.

“The White House officials then, in violation of written White House policies, contacted directly several IRS employees … and attempted to secure taxpayer return information,” the report alleged.

The White House policy states that “no member of the White House staff should have any communication of any type with the IRS without prior approval of the (White House) counsel.”

White House officials contended the officials who made the contacts were authorized by the counsel’s office as required by the rules and were not seeking tax return information.

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