A federal court shot down a tea party group’s effort to permanently bar the Internal Revenue Service from targeting conservative groups for special scrutiny, issuing a ruling Thursday that says the tax agency has taken enough steps to correct the problem.
Judge Reggie B. Walton also refused the request by True the Vote, a Texas-based group that tries to combat election fraud, to make Lois G. Lerner and other current and former IRS employees pay a penalty for having blocked the group’s tax-exempt status and made intrusive inquiries into the group’s activities.
Without ruling on whether the initial targeting was unlawful, Judge Walton said there was no longer a case because the IRS eventually did approve tax-exempt status.
True the Vote argued that the IRS was pressured into stopping the targeting but could restart it at any time. The group asked the court to issue an order prohibiting the IRS from targeting, but the judge declined.
“The defendants’ grant of tax-exempt status to the plaintiff, and the defendants’ suspension of the alleged IRS targeting scheme during the tax-exempt application process, including remedial steps to address the alleged conduct, coupled with the reduced ‘concern about the recurrence of objectionable behavior’ government actors … convinces the court that the ‘voluntary cessation’ exception is not applicable here,” wrote Judge Walton, who was appointed to U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia by President George W. Bush.
A True the Vote spokesman didn’t have an immediate comment when reached by phone Thursday. The IRS also didn’t comment.
True the Vote applied for tax-exempt status in 2010 but was not granted approval until last year. The group’s mission is to try to clean up voter registration rolls and spot election fraud.
Catherine Engelbrecht said that after she founded the organization, the federal government took an extraordinary amount of interest in her business and her personal activities. Authorities from the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration made inquiries with her or with King Street Patriots, another tea party group with which she was affiliated.
Two House committees are investigating the IRS, and some of the agency’s top leaders have departed. Ms. Lerner, who was at the center of the targeting, was put on paid administrative leave and then allowed to retire last year.
IRS officials acknowledged that they used inappropriate criteria to single out conservative-leaning groups for special scrutiny in their tax-exempt status applications beginning in 2010. Officials earlier denied the targeting, but an internal investigation by the agency’s inspector general revealed the behavior in May 2013.
Some liberal-leaning groups also ended up under special scrutiny, though they were subjected to less-intrusive questioning and were approved.
More than 100 conservative-leaning groups with “patriot,” “tea party” or some other conservative designation in their names were blocked, and many of them waited years.
The Laurens County Tea Party in South Carolina and the Allen Area Patriots from Frisco, Texas, were finally approved this month. Both applied for tax-exempt status in July 2010.
The Albuquerque Tea Party is nearing five years since it applied.