- The Washington Times - Friday, November 5, 2004

Leaders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) were no more delighted to receive a stern letter from the Internal Revenue Service than anybody else would be, especially a month before Election Day.

The organization announced last week that the IRS was investigating the group after its chairman, Julian Bond, criticized President Bush at the NAACP’s annual convention in Philadelphia in July. An “Information Document Request” from the IRS said Mr. Bond in his remarks “condemned the administration policies of George W. Bush on education, the economy and the war in Iraq.”

Mr. Bond denounced the IRS inquiry as “Nixonian,” a reference to President Richard Nixon’s ordering IRS audits to harass his “enemies list” of critics, including journalists and liberal civil rights activists.

Indeed, the resemblance of the current inquiry to those Watergate scandal days is striking. NAACP leaders charge the IRS letter was timed to intimidate the group from carrying out get-out-the-vote activities. IRS Commissioner Mark W. Everson, a Bush appointee, calls that charge “repugnant and groundless.”

Nevertheless, his office’s explanations raise larger questions. Under IRS rules, tax-exempt groups may be political as long as they are not “partisan.” The IRS likes to remain ambiguous on the difference between the two, saying it will only prosecute egregious violations. That leaves it to the rest of us to wonder just how egregious such activities have to be.

In Mr. Bond’s speech, which mentioned George Bush 13 times, he lashed out at the president’s judicial appointments, ridiculed his “tax giveaways for the rich” and encouraged black people to vote, saying, “We know that if whites and nonwhites vote in the same percentages as they did in 2000, Bush will be re-defeated by 3 million votes.”

OK, it’s no secret Mr. Bush and the NAACP get along about as well as Alcoholics Anonymous and the national liquor lobby. Mr. Bush described his relationship with current NAACP leaders last summer as “basically nonexistent.” He criticized “the rhetoric and the names they’ve called me” and said he would reach out to individual members in other ways.

Mr. Bond’s speech would not have been welcome at this year’s Republican National Convention, but a lot of things wouldn’t. Does that make the speech partisan? One person’s partisanship is simply another person’s truth-telling.

The IRS spent a decade investigating religious broadcaster Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition. The group later prevailed in a lawsuit, but Mr. Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network paid an IRS fine for its involvement in his 1988 presidential campaign.

On the other hand, President Bush spoke to the National Urban League’s convention last summer after rebuffing the NAACP. IRS rules say a political candidate may speak before a nonprofit organization “only in a noncandidate capacity,” cannot make “any mention of the fact that the individual is a candidate for public office” and must make sure “no campaign activity occurs in connection with the candidate’s attendance.”

Yet, it should come as no surprise Mr. Bush did mention his candidacy. He also proudly declared, “I’m here to ask for your vote.” But, only in a strictly nonpartisan way, I am sure.

In the past, activist preachers and lay people have felt free to criticize or endorse politicians without jeopardizing the tax-exempt status of their churches or houses of worship as long as they did so as individuals, not as spokespersons for their churches or organizations.

But, an IRS “fact sheet” the agency provided the day after the NAACP announcement raises questions about whether that old standard still holds. “Even activities that encourage people to vote for or against a particular candidate on the basis of nonpartisan criteria violate the political campaign prohibition,” it says. That’s about as clear as the alphabet soup that usually pours out of government bureaus.

The IRS also announced it was investigating about 60 charities, churches and other tax-exempt groups for potentially breaking federal rules barring them from partisan political activity.

What does “partisan” mean? Exactly what the IRS says it does — whatever that is.

Clarence Page is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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