Explosive testimony lit up a House hearing on the IRS targeting scandal Thursday, as GOP super lawyer Cleta Mitchell told representatives that the systematic effort to delay the processing of grass-roots groups' applications for nonprofit status continues to occur.
Mitchell represents several grass-roots conservative organizations whose applications under sections 501c3 and 501c4 of the internal revenue code were delayed for years in the run-up to the 2012 election. She said that targeting had not stopped.
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GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina told Fox News on Thursday that the effort to suppress conservative voices was "almost Nixonian," noting President Obama said in a recent interview that there was "not even a smidgen" of corruption involved in the apparent IRS effort to chill conservative groups after the tea party movement emerged in February 2009.
"How could you possibly say that when Lois Lerner, in charge of tax-exempt groups, pled the fifth?" Graham asked.
Also testifying Monday was Jay Sekulow, head of the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ). ACLJ officials also contend the IRS targeting continues.
Forty-one grass-roots groups were named as plaintiffs in the ACLJ lawsuit alleging widespread abuses of the First Amendment rights of assembly and free speech by the Obama administration and the IRS. Of those, 13 still have not received adjudication of their request for nonprofit status.
The oldest of those 13 pending applications for nonprofit status dates back to December 2009, French says. That would mean at least one group has been sidelined through two election cycles, with a third rapidly approaching.
Of the 13 groups in limbo, two sought 501c3 nonprofit status and the other 11 sought 501c4 status as "social welfare" organizations, French said.
According to the ACLJ, five other groups joined the lawsuit after withdrawing their nonprofit applications due to frustration over the IRS approval process. Also, two of the plaintiffs refused to answer IRS questions that they considered unconstitutional, which led to the IRS closing their nonprofit applications without further consideration.
The proposed new IRS regulations seek to limit 501c4 groups’ activities. Conservative activists say the rules have exacerbated their sense of uncertainty and intimidation.
"Of course that has a chilling effect," says French. "And until it is decisively and emphatically stopped through public, legal accountability, that chilling effect is likely to linger."
Mitchell, who represents grass-roots conservative activists not included in the ACLJ lawsuit, recently echoed the view that conservative groups continue to be singled out in the run-up to the 2014 elections.
"The IRS is still, very deliberately targeting conservative organizations and subjecting them to additional intense and burdensome scrutiny — and this has not stopped," she said. "This is still ongoing."
According to House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp of Michigan, the new proposed IRS regulations, which were first unveiled in November, appear to single out as political activity the precise sorts of programs tea party organizations typically run: Candidate forums, voter registration drives, and distributions of voter guides.
In a column published in the February edition of Newsmax Magazine, the Wall Street Journal’s Kimberley A. Strassel contends that conservative groups are much more likely to become ensnared in the new proposed limitations.
She notes that neither unions, which conduct most of their activities as 501c5 groups, nor 501c3 organizations such as the liberal League of Women Voters Education Fund, are affected. That’s because the rules were not written to apply to those types of nonprofits.
The reaction of conservative activists has grown increasingly strident. Everett Wilkinson, chairman of the grass-roots National Liberty Federation organization, tells Newsmax:
"Never before have we seen such attitudes and actions taken in America by an administration or government body.
"They are intentionally trying to silence the voices of millions of Americans, who all they want is to be heard."
Wilkinson said his organization is closely following nine critical Senate races that could flip either way. But the fear of some that they could become targets of the IRS is having an impact, he says.
"Through this intimidation, a lot of people have said, 'I don’t know if I want to risk the IRS or the Treasury Department or whoever they’re going to send after me,' " he says.
Recent remarks by Democrats appear to have exacerbated conservatives’ concern that the IRS has been politicized.
In January, New York Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer urged the IRS to "redouble [its] efforts immediately" to constrain the tea parties.
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During his Super Bowl interview with Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, President Obama said there was "not even a smidgen of corruption" involved. This despite the fact that the FBI has yet to release the findings of its investigation.
Such remarks appear aimed at energizing a Democratic base that has seen tea party nonprofits as fair game ever since the Citizens United ruling made it easier for corporations to get involved in politics.
Curiously, the IRS targeting has had relatively little impact on the major activist groups that raise millions of dollars each year.
A recent New York Times story reported that four major conservative organizations — FreedomWorks, Tea Party Patriots, the Club for Growth Action Fund, and the Senate Conservatives Fund — are actually outraising their more establishment GOP counterparts such as Crossroads GPS.
But unlike the big groups that can afford to "lawyer up," it is the smaller activist organizations all over the country — with names like Linchpins of Liberty, Colorado 9/12 Project, First State Patriots, Mid-South Tea Party, and American Patriots Against Government Excess — who have been ensnared by the long arm of the IRS.
Those smaller organizations are believed to play a key role in getting out the vote in local neighborhoods.
Wilkinson praises the myriad local tea parties as "the most effective system out there, compared to the Republican consulting groups that get millions of dollars in TV ads and radio ads.
"They put every dollar they have in, and their heart and soul. They’re getting people to the polls for maybe pennies on the dollar."
How those groups will fare as the tax laws they must comply with grow increasingly complex and demanding is open to question.
French says the proposed IRS rules will mean "an enormous amount of activity undertaken on the basis of issues is now re-characterized as political and now subject to limits.
"That essentially takes a group’s ability to engage in issue advocacy and then completely neuters it in the days and the weeks leading up to an election, by defining political activity so very broadly," he adds.
When the targeting controversy started, President Obama said the IRS targeting was "inexcusable," and added: "I’m angry about it."
The "social welfare" and issue-advocacy 501c4 organizations have received special attention in part because their donors’ names generally do not have to be disclosed.
The controversy over IRS targeting dates back to May 2013. That’s when former IRS executive Lois Lerner revealed that IRS personnel had acted in what she called an "absolutely inappropriate" way by holding up the nonprofit applications of groups with the terms "tea party," "patriot," or "9/12" in their names.
The IRS asked the targeted groups to answer intrusive questionnaires regarding their activities — ranging from information on their members’ employers, donors lists, and even in one case how much time a particular organization spent "on prayer groups."
At the time, GOP Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, received several complaints. He wrote a letter of inquiry to then-acting IRS Commissioner Stephen T. Miller.
Miller wrote back with assurances that no conservative groups were being targeted. But not long after Lerner’s disclosure, Miller was asked to resign.
The Obama administration has portrayed the IRS affair as a limited imbroglio involving a few rogue agents in the IRS’s Cincinnati office.
But Mitchell says several of her clients were told a final decision on their applications would be handed down from IRS offices in Washington, D.C.
Not every grass-roots leader is concerned that conservative activists’ IRS problems will work to Democrats’ advantage, however. Tea Party Express chairwoman Amy Kremer is among those predicting it will backfire.
"When all this came out about the IRS targeting, it made people mad," she tells Newsmax. "It made them mad as hell.
"…You get these individuals, under whatever local group, they don’t care: They’re going to go out there, and work their hearts and souls out for the cause."
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