WASHINGTON – The Internal Revenue Service improperly screened applications from conservative groups that sought tax-exempt status, a senior IRS official said Friday.
IRS staffers selected for more review the applications that included the words “tea party” or “patriot,” Lois Lerner, director of exempt organizations, said in a conference call with reporters.
“That’s absolutely inappropriate and not the way we should do things,” Lerner said.
The staffers also requested information the IRS does not normally ask for, including donor lists.
Lerner first disclosed the improper screening in response to a question she received at a conference sponsored by the American Bar Assn. in Washington earlier in the day. In the conference call that followed, she said that of 300 applications staffers selected for additional review, about a quarter were selected solely because of the flagged words. The rest were selected for a “broad spectrum” of reasons, Lerner said. She could not elaborate on the other groups’ purposes or politics.
Lerner was unable to give a timeline for her investigation of the screening processes, which occurred in the IRS Cincinnati office. She said that news reports prompted her to investigate.
The groups were applying for tax exemption as social welfare groups. Social welfare groups are able to participate in limited political advocacy as long as their primary activity remains social welfare, Lerner said. The IRS received 3,400 applications for social welfare status – more than double the number the agency received in 2010. Low-level staffers based in Cincinnati screened national applications to examine more closely any political activities the groups planned.
She could not say when she informed higher-level officials of the matter, but said that when IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman told Congress in March 2012 that the IRS was not targeting groups based on their political views, he had not been informed of what was going on in the Cincinnati office. Lerner did not answer with any specificity questions about when she learned of the improper screening.
Lerner said the staffers selected the applications with “tea party” and “patriot” in them for expediency, not out of political bias.
She said the agency now requires the staffers’ screening methods to be reviewed by higher-level IRS officials.