IRS employees were “acutely” aware in 2010 that President Obama wanted to crack down on conservative organizations and were egged into targeting tea party groups by press reports mocking the emerging movement, according to an interim report being circulated Tuesday by House investigators.
The report, by staffers for Rep. Darrell E. Issa, California Republican and chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, quoted two Internal Revenue Service officials saying the tea party applications were singled out in the targeting program that has the agency under investigation because “they were likely to attract media attention.”
In the report, the investigators do not find evidence that IRS employees received orders from politicians to target the tea party, and agency officials deny overt bias or political motives.
But the report says the IRS was at least taking cues from political leaders and designed special policies to review tea party applications, including dispatching some of them to Washington to be vetted by headquarters.
“As prominent politicians publicly urged the IRS to take action on tax-exempt groups engaged in legal campaign intervention activities, the IRS treated tea party applications differently,” the staff report concludes. “Applications filed by tea party groups were identified and grouped due to media attention surrounding the existence of the tea party in general.”
That finding contradicts Democrats on Capitol Hill, who argue that some liberal groups also were given special scrutiny, thus showing there was neither a witch hunt for conservatives nor political pressure from the White House.
“The fact is that not a single piece of evidence has been unearthed that suggests there was any political motivation or outside involvement,” Democratic staffers on the House Ways and Means Committee said in a memo Tuesday outlining the state of the investigation. “Republicans, however, believe that if they continue to repeat their baseless accusations of a ‘White House enemies’ list, it will become true.”
For years, Republicans in Congress charged that the IRS was targeting specific groups, but top agency officials denied it.
But four months ago, with an inspector general’s report about to be released, the IRS carefully staged a question at a conference so officials could reveal that they had been treating tea party applications differently.
Several congressional committees have since opened investigations including open hearings, document requests and depositions of agency employees.
The latest oversight report is meant to take stock of where the investigation stands and to lay out what Republicans know and what they suspect. The report says the conclusions are preliminary and that tens of thousands of pages of documents have yet to be examined.
In one of the key findings, investigators said negative press coverage of the tea party was one reason why the IRS gave the groups special scrutiny.
“It was my understanding that the reason they were identified is because they were likely to attract media attention,” Steven Grodnitzky, one of the employees in the exempt organizations division, told investigators.
Another supervisory employee in Washington, Ronald Shoemaker, also said press attention helped shape IRS policies, telling investigators that media attention to those cases “was the basis” for designating them as significant cases requiring special examination.
The Republican oversight report traces the growing pressure on the IRS to act, beginning with Mr. Obama’s criticism of the Citizens United Supreme Court decision in his 2010 State of the Union address to calls from top members of Congress for the IRS to give special scrutiny to tea party applications.