The IRS probe of the NAACP

The NAACP has sent a letter to the IRS telling the federal agency that it was refusing to cooperate with the investigation of its tax-exempt status. The privileged tax status of the nation’s oldest civil rights organization may be in jeopardy if the NAACP engaged in prohibited partisan political activity during last year’s presidential election. At issue are the remarks made by NAACP Chairman Julian Bond on July 11, 2004, at the NAACP’s annual convention.

NAACP Interim President and CEO Dennis Hayes has charged that the IRS investigation, which was officially launched on Oct. 8, apparently in response to complaints filed by two congressmen, was “clearly motivated by partisan politics.” An NAACP statement declared that the organization “has rejected the IRS’s premise that Bond’s speech constituted prohibited campaign intervention.”

The NAACP reports that the IRS, in its communications with the civil rights group, “claims that Bond, speaking at last year’s convention, ‘condemned’ President Bush’s war, economic and educational policies.” Referring to the IRS’ reported rationale for launching its investigation, Mr. Bond asserted, “Under that standard, 55 million Americans would be subject to audits.”

Apart from the fact that more than 60 million Americans — not 55 million — actually voted for presidential candidates other than George W. Bush, Mr. Bond also errs in failing to consider the relevant fact that none of those divided voters, unlike the NAACP on whose behalf Mr. Bond was speaking, enjoys tax-exempt status.

In a letter to Rep. Charles Rangel, who is the ranking member of the House Ways and Means Committee, IRS Commissioner Mark Everson explained that charitable groups organized under section 501(c)(3) — as the NAACP is — must avoid “reasonably overt communication … that the organization supports or opposes a particular candidate.” In the same letter, Mr. Everson asserted that the IRS “sent letters to twenty non-church organizations between August 31 and November 2, 2004.” The commissioner added that “the group [of 20] represents a broad cross-section of the tax-exempt community and a wide range of viewpoints.”

In his July speech, Mr. Bond accused the Republican Party of practicing “the politics of racial division to win elections and gain power” and “appeal[ing] to the dark underside of American culture, to the minority of Americans who reject democracy and equality.” Mr. Bond said he was afraid to listen to Mr. Bush’s speech commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, which ruled that segregated public schools violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. “I was afraid [Mr. Bush would] announce he was going to repeal the 14th Amendment,” Mr. Bond declared.

Mr. Bond told the convention that the 2004 election was “a contest between two widely disparate views of who we are and what we believe.” He continued: “One view wants to march us backward through history; wants to surrender control of government to special interests; wants to weaken democracy; wants to give religion veto power over science; wants to curtail civil liberties; and wants to destroy the environment.” In contrast, he said, “the other view promises expanded democracy and giving the people, not the plutocrats, control over their government.”

Mr. Bond left little doubt which presidential candidate the NAACP supported and what must be done as a result. “If you don’t vote because you fear your vote won’t count, you’re absolutely right. If you don’t vote, you won’t count!” By failing to vote, he told the NAACP audience, “you’ll be letting the bad guys win. Our response must be determination — to flood the polls and cast our votes in such large numbers that there will be no doubt.” For emphasis, he charged that the Bush 2000 campaign perpetrated “the outright theft of black votes.”

“They write a new constitution for Iraq and ignore the Constitution here at home,” asserted Mr. Bond, who has repeatedly charged that Mr. Bush’s appointments came from “the Taliban wing” of American politics. “Overdosed on testosterone, they’ve descended into the very vulgarity they say they want to keep off the airwaves,” Mr. Bond said of the Bush administration.

“The differences between the candidates this year are neither incremental nor inconsequential,” Mr. Bond told the NAACP audience in July. “The stakes are high — higher than ever in recent memory — and the consequences are almost too dire to bear. Fortunately, the race is on.”

Now, if these comments do not cross the line into blatantly partisan politics, then no comments could conceivably cross that line. In the face of the NAACP’s strident refusal to cooperate with the investigation, the IRS has two options. It can drop the matter entirely, in which case it would be sending the worst possible signal. Or it can exercise its right to ask the Justice Department to seek a federal court order enforcing the IRS summons. The choice is clear.

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