The IRS Scandal: A Timeline

Leaked excerpt of IG report shows systematic targeting of conservative groups

IRS building in Washington / AP
May 13, 2013

The Internal Revenue Service systematically targeted conservative groups over a two-year period, from before the 2010 midterm elections to the 2012 presidential campaign season, a leaked timeline from the IRS inspector general report shows.

The Washington Post initially reported that the IRS targeted "Tea Party" and other conservative groups for extra scrutiny when they applied for tax-exempt status with the IRS. The inspector general’s report is likely to be released later this week.

IRS officials first began looking for "Tea Party" and other groups around March 1, 2010, more than eight months before the mid-term election that would see Republicans make historic gains in the House of Representatives, the timeline indicates.

"Determinations Unit personnel indicated that they used the description Tea Party as a shorthand way of referring to the group of cases involving political campaign intervention rather than to target any particular group. The specialist used Tea Party, Patriots, and 9/12 as part of the criteria for these searches," according to a timeline note.

The designation 9/12 refers to a project launched by conservative pundit Glenn Beck, while "Tea Party" typically refers to a broad array of conservative grassroots groups that arose in opposition to the Obama administration’s policies, especially Obamacare and large fiscal deficits.

The IRS actions came several months after the Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which overturned limits on independence expenditures by corporations and labor unions, among other associations.

The IRS identified 10 initial "Tea Party" cases and over the next month began to train its employees in "an emerging issue referred to as Tea Party Cases," according to the June 7, 2010, entry in the timeline. The next month, managers instructed employees to "be on the lookout for Tea Party applications."

The IRS developed official BOLO (be on the look out) criteria for groups to receive extra scrutiny in August 2010. The criteria expressly targeted "various local organizations in the Tea Party movement," according to the official timeline.

The "Acting Director, Rulings and Agreements" inquired into the criteria used for "Tea Party cases" at the beginning of June 2011. He received a "very different" answer than the initial BOLO criteria, according to the timeline, and expressed concern that the criteria might have been overly broad.

A meeting with the Director of Exempt Organizations Lois Lerner (referred to as "Director, EO") at the end of June 2011 revealed the extent of the IRS’s targeting of conservative groups. The criteria used to target groups for extra scrutiny was extremely broad, according to the timeline.

Groups only had to mention "Tea Party," "Patriots," or "9/12 Project," focus at all on fiscal issues, or "criticize how the country is being run" in their case file in order to earn extra scrutiny from the IRS.

Lerner expressed concern over the criteria and ordered they be "immediately revised," according to the timeline.

The criteria were broadened in early July to "organizations involved with political, lobbying, or advocacy for exemption under 501(c)(3) or 501(c)(4)," according to the timeline.

However, more than 100 groups had already been subjected to heightened scrutiny.

IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman testified in March 2012 that the IRS had not been targeting conservative groups over eight months after Lerner learned about the discriminatory criteria, according to the Washington Post.

The initially targeted groups were still scrutinized even after the criteria were revised, according to the timeline. The IRS conducted a "triage" of the cases to deal with and dispense with them through the end of the year and into 2012.

The IRS sent out a "first batch of letters" requesting additional or missing information from groups undergoing extra scrutiny in January 2012.

At the end of the month, the BOLO criteria were again updated, this time narrowing them to "political action type organizations involved in limiting/expanding Government, educating on the Constitution and Bill of Rights, social economic reform/movement."

The Tea Party groups were known for touting adherence to the Constitution and the liberties protected in it as part of their platform.

At the end of February, Lerner stopped all requests for more information from going out "until new guidance was provided to the Determinations Unit," according to the timeline.

At the beginning of March 2012, the IRS prepared a draft list of questions for the targeted groups, including inquiries into the groups’ donors.

Around this same time, media reports began popping up about the IRS’s unfair treatment of conservative groups.

This attention was not lost on the IRS. Two officials, the "Senior Technical Advisor to the Acting Commissioner, Tax Exempt and Government Entities Division, and the Deputy Commissioner for Services and Enforcement," discussed the attention that the Tea Party groups were receiving from the media, and the deputy commissioner asked the technical advisor to look into the matter and make recommendations.

On May 17, 2012, the IRS again changed the BOLO criteria. The new criteria focused on "501(c)(3), 501(c)(4), 501(c)(5), and 501(c)(6) organizations with indicators of significant amounts of political campaign intervention (raising questions as to exempt purpose and/or excess private benefit)," according to the timeline.

Toward the end of May, the IRS realized that it had asked for too much information from the targeted groups. The excessive information would either be returned or destroyed, while the IRS prepared to inform the groups that had not responded that they would not need to provide any more information.

The allegations of unfair and partisan targeting have drawn bipartisan condemnation. Numerous Republican and Democratic lawmakers took to the airwaves on Sunday to denounce the IRS’s behavior, while President Barack Obama called the actions "outrageous" in a news conference Monday morning.