The IRS has agreed to pay $50,000 to a conservative organization who sued the agency over allegations that it released its private donor list to a rival group in 2012.
The National Organization for Marriage, a group that opposes same-sex marriage, last fall filed a lawsuit against the IRS, accusing it of illegally disclosing its donor list to the Human Rights Campaign, a top advocate for gay rights and gay marriage.
The IRS agreed to hand over the $50,000 as part of a settlement of the case. Judge James C. Cacheris of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia granted the settlement as part of an order he entered Tuesday morning.
The $50,000 the IRS has agreed to pay represents actual damages NOM incurred to fight the leak of its donor list in court, not punitive damages. NOM was unable to prove that the disclosure of the private donor list was intentional because Boston-based gay rights activist Matthew Meisel invoked his Fifth Amendment rights and refused to testify
The lawsuit turned up emails from Meisel that said he had a "conduit" who obtained NOM's donor list.
NOM Chairman John Eastman said the IRS at first argued that it had done nothing wrong and said NOM must have released the information itself, adding that the $50,000 payment shows that the IRS admitted to illegally leaking the donor list.
"Thanks to a lot of hard work, we've forced the IRS to admit that they in fact were the ones to break the law and wrongfully released this confidential information," he said in a statement.
Releasing confidential taxpayer information is a felony. Cleta Mitchell, an attorney for the Act Right Legal Foundation, which is handling the case, has pressed the IRS and the Treasury's inspector general for tax administration to find out who was responsible.
The court's decision comes as the IRS faces additional scrutiny this week. The Treasury's inspector general on Monday launched a new investigation into how the IRS lost thousands of emails.
Republicans clashed with tax agency's top official during a Monday night hearing into the IRS targeting and the 2011 hard drive crashes that the agency said led to it losing two years' worth of emails belonging to former IRS administrator Lois Lerner.
The panel held a second part of the hearing Tuesday morning and questioned White House counsel Jennifer O'Conner, who previously served as a counsel at the IRS, and David Ferriero, the top official at the National Archives and Records Administration.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest Tuesday said the GOP's focus on on the missing emails shows that the party has become "increasingly desperate to try to substantiate the conspiracy theories they have been propagating for some time now."
When asked what he thought of the inspector general's decision to open an investigation into the missing emails, Earnest said it's an independent office so it wouldn't be appropriate for him to "render a judgment on it activities."
NOM complained about the disclosure of its donor list when it first occurred in February 2012 but the controversy garnered more attention after disclosures that the IRS targeted a conservative nonprofit groups that had applied for tax-exempt status.
During last year's presidential race, HRC posted NOM's donor list online.
The same day a report in the Huffington Post said it had received the list separately from HRC and highlighted a $10,000 donation from the political action committee affiliated with 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
Eastman, NOM's chairman, says the timing of the leak was particularly suspicious. The day after HRC posted the documents, their president, Joe Solmonese, left to become a co-chairman of President Obama's re-election bid.
After NOM complained, HRC took the information off its website, but a link to the Huffington Post article is still active.
Eastman is now calling on Attorney General Eric Holder to grant Meisel immunity from prosecution so can be free to disclose the identity of his "conduit."
"We urge the Congress to explore this issue with the appropriate government officials," he said. "It's imperative that all those who have engaged in corrupt practices and illegal acts in the IRS be identified and held accountable.