An attorney for a Tea Party group that believes the IRS targeted it for special scrutiny while applying for nonprofit status said an IRS analyst told him over a year ago that the agency had a "secret working group" devoted to investigating conservative organizations.
Attorney Dan Backer, whose client TheTeaParty.net has been trying to obtain tax-exempt status since 2010, said an IRS analyst mentioned the alleged working group during a phone conversation about one of Backer’s other client organizations.
"More than a year ago, one of these guys, really a slip of the tongue, [said] ‘Yeah we have this new working group that’s really looking at all these conservative organizations,’" Backer said. "And that’s when we knew it was gonna be a problem."
The IRS apologized for singling out organizations with conservative-sounding names and missions for scrutiny on Friday, days before the agency’s inspector general is expected to release the results of its investigation into the matter.
The IRS says low-level staffers in its Cincinnati, Ohio office, conducted the inappropriate targeting. However, Backer and other conservatives say they doubt this excuse and believe the targeting was approved higher up in the agency.
Backer said IRS staffers at the Cincinnati determinations unit were singling out conservatives because "that’s where they have this secret working group."
He said these staffers were most likely following orders from above.
"Nobody wipes their own ass in the government without a lawyer clearing it," Backer said. "The idea that this is not at least a few layers up is nonsense."
Lois Lerner, the director of the IRS’s Exempt Organizations Division, said she first started looking into whether conservative groups were being unfairly singled out by the division last fall.
But a timeline from the inspector general indicated that Lerner and other high-level officials became aware of the matter as early as 2011.
TheTeaParty.net’s Scottie Nell Hughes said her group was asked to turn over an unreasonable amount of information to the IRS after it applied for tax-exempt status in 2010.
Once the group submitted the first round of documents to the IRS, "they came back and asked for all of our donors and their contact information, as well as a list of all of the previous events … and everything in the future we would do, including the details of who, what, when, where, and how; who was gonna be on the guest list, what interactions we had with congressmen, senators, elected people," Hughes said.
"We still turned in all the paperwork and thought maybe that was gonna be it. Then round three happened, which was about six months ago," Hughes added. "They wanted a list of every single email, every single fundraising and marketing email, as well as ever social media post that we’d ever done from the very beginning, which is basically three-and-a-half-to-four years work, which is ludicrous."
Hughes said TheTeaParty.net was fortunate to have a strong legal team, including Backer, who objected to the unusual requests. But she said she was concerned that smaller conservative organizations may have been intimidated into turning over information about their financial backers—information that Hughes believes could be used to target smaller conservative donors.
Hughes said she has already received complaints from conservative donors about suspicious audits.
"My inbox, my mailbox, and my messages on Facebook have been filled with people saying, ‘You know what’s funny? I’ve never been audited in my life, but two years ago, I actually got audited for no real reason. Nothing had changed on my taxes,’" she said. "Yes, random audits do happen. [But] I think it would be interesting to see how many of these groups actually turned in their donor lists and how many of those people actually got audited."
The House Ways and Means Committee will hold a hearing on the IRS actions this Friday.