- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Kevin Kookogey, president of Linchpins of Liberty in Tennessee, has been waiting 32 months for the Internal Revenue Service to respond to his group’s application for tax-exempt status. Diane Belsom, president of the Laurens County Tea Party in South Carolina, has him beat: She has been waiting more than three years, having filed her application in the summer of 2010.

They are not alone in their IRS-induced limbo.

Indeed, three months after it became clear that the IRS started targeting conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status and after President Obama installed new leadership to try to fix the agency, dozens of groups are still awaiting a final decision or, in some cases, have withdrawn their applications out of frustration with the process.

“I was really hopeful that once attention was given to the abuse that was going on that something would be done about it,” Mrs. Belsom said. “To date, we still have not been approved, and there are other groups that are pending as well. There do not seem to be any consequences for anyone involved in the IRS for what they have done. It kind of seems like things are getting swept under the rug.”

The latest tally that the IRS provided to House investigators showed that as of late last month, 56 applications from tea party groups were still pending or had been pulled.

The IRS has not provided congressional investigators with a more detailed breakdown of the outstanding cases, and that information is just one angle that House investigators are pursuing as they widen their probe into the scandal.

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Scrutiny of the IRS picked up speed in May after an audit from the agency’s inspector general found the IRS inappropriately flagged conservative political groups for additional reviews to check whether they were overly political, a violation of the rules governing tax-exempt organizations.

The report showed that a total of 298 applications were set aside for additional screening between 2010 and 2012, and that 96 of them either had “tea party” “9/12” or “patriots” in their names. The audit also said that the team of IRS specialists responsible for reviewing the cases looked at the applications from a variety of groups — however, it said that “all cases with tea party, patriots, or 9/12 in their names were forwarded to the team of specialists.”

The latest breakdown of IRS files by the House Ways and Means Committee also suggests that conservative groups had more obstacles than progressive groups.

As of July 29, the IRS had approved 48 of the 104 applications from groups that had “conservative” “tea party” “patriots” or “9/12” in their names. These groups were asked on average nearly 15 questions.

Meanwhile, all seven of the applications from groups that had “progressive” in their names were approved. These groups, on average, had fewer than five questions from IRS officials.

The IRS initially blamed “rogue” employees in the agency’s Cincinnati office for the aggressive targeting of conservative groups, but House Republicans have said their investigation and ensuing testimony from IRS officials on Capitol Hill have shown that some applications were turned over for review to the chief counsel’s office in Washington, led by William Wilkins — one of Mr. Obama’s two appointees to the agency.

House Republicans want to know whether Mr. Wilkins had any involvement in those cases and continue to ask for information related to Lois Lerner, who led the tax-exempt organization division at the IRS and was put on paid administration leave after refusing to answer questions from Congress about the targeting of conservative groups. Republicans want to know why she apparently showed so much interest in how tea party cases were being processed.

They also are looking into whether the IRS targeted conservative nonprofit groups through financial audits that occurred about the same time the agency increased scrutiny of applications from tea party and conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status.

Democrats, meanwhile, have suggested that Republicans are on a witch hunt.

They say the IRS was grappling with the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Citizens United case, which expanded the ability of these kinds of groups to engage in political speech, and how it affected tax-exempt groups. They also say there is no evidence that the agency was politically motivated or directed from the White House.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the House oversight committee, and Rep. Sander M. Levin, Michigan Democrat, said in an op-ed that appeared in The Washington Post this week that Republicans “have engaged in a sustained and orchestrated campaign to accuse the White House and the Obama administration of using the IRS to target the president’s political enemies — without any evidence to support their claims.”

“Let us be clear: There was mismanagement at the IRS, and IRS employees screened applications for tax-exempt status for further review based, in part, on the names of the organizations,” the Democrats write. “But there is absolutely no evidence of political motivation or White House involvement.”

They said lawmakers should re-focus their efforts on confirming a new commissioner of the IRS, “restoring the public’s trust in the agency and fixing the vague standards that led to these problems in the first place.”

But Rep. Darrel E. Issa, chairman of the House oversight committee, and Rep. Jim Jordan, Ohio Republican and chairman of a key subcommittee, continued to press for information Tuesday, turning their attention once again to Ms. Lerner and demanding that she turn over personal email records that involved her work at the IRS.

House investigators also have requested that the chairwoman of the Federal Election Commission turn over emails between her agency and Ms. Lerner. The IRS has said it would review the questions from House investigators but there didn’t appear to be any wrongdoing.

Caught in the middle of the investigations are the groups awaiting approval.

Mr. Kookogey, the president of Linchpins of Liberty, said the wait has made it impossible to raise money and will force him to start his group from scratch if his application is ever accepted. “If the government’s intent was to shut us down and make us unable to conduct our mission as a 501(c)(3) educational organization, then they have been effective,” he said.

Acting IRS Commissioner Daniel Werfel offered a deal to some of the 501 (c)(4) groups, including the Laurens County Tea Party, in June. He asked them to agree to limit political activities to 40 percent of their work in exchange for putting them through an expedited process.

But the American Center for Law and Justice, which represents the Laurens County Tea Party and dozens of other tea party groups, rejected that deal, saying the 40 percent limit has no basis in law.

• Seth McLaughlin can be reached at smclaughlin@washingtontimes.com.

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