The IRS says it has stopped targeting the tea party — but three years later, the tax agency is still holding on to the sensitive information it pried from the conservative groups through invasive questions, and officials are even vowing to make the answers public.
Groups caught up in the scandal say that is proof the targeting is continuing, and they want the IRS to expunge the information or, at the very least, to make sure it is never released.
Obama administration officials insist they have stopped targeting but say the groups are at fault for following the misguided IRS requests for information. Now, the administration says, there is nothing the tax agency can do but make the information public as the law requires.
On Thursday, a federal appeals court in Washington will be asked to referee the dispute, just one of the legal problems still plaguing the IRS after its 2013 admission that it inappropriately singled out conservative and tea party groups for intrusive scrutiny.
“They asked for things to which they were not entitled,” said Cleta Mitchell, an attorney for True the Vote, one of the tea party nonprofits that got caught up in the targeting scandal. “This is the fruit of the poisonous tree.”
The IRS acknowledged that the questions it asked were inappropriate and weren’t needed to decide on tea party groups’ applications for nonprofit status.
Questions included such sensitive information as the names of all financial contributors; lists of family members, details of their political affiliations and speculation about their plans to run for office; and details of organization members’ outside jobs.
Groups were even told that they must detail members’ private communications with their local legislators or any contact with reporters.
Tea party groups said the questions trampled on their First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and association.
Some tea party organizations, advised by their attorneys, refused to comply. Others figured that the IRS had the upper hand, so they turned over the information despite misgivings.
The IRS has apologized for the intrusive questions but still holds on to the information it gleaned from dozens of tea party groups from 2010 through 2013.
The agency did not provide responses to questions from The Washington Times about how many groups were still awaiting approval, nor did it say what it planned to do with the reams of information pried from tea party groups.
But in briefs with the appeals court, the Obama administration says the fault lies with the tea party organizations that complied with the IRS requests.
“The IRS expressly advised plaintiff that, if the application were approved, the IRS ‘will be required by law to make’ the ‘information that you submit in response to this letter available for public inspection,’” administration attorneys said. “Plaintiff still submitted the information to the IRS to support its application, knowing that if it were granted, the information would be subject to public inspection.”
According to the IRS, tea party groups could have simply ignored the agency’s demands, then sued if their applications were denied.
Fat chance, the tea party groups replied.
They said that under IRS rules, applications without all of the information requested are considered incomplete and the cases are closed without any final determination. No determination means no chance to sue, the tea party groups said.
“Under the threat of its application being closed, TTV chose to provide information to the IRS, information it believed was requested in the ordinary course of the application process. The retention of such information is an ‘affront to the taxpayer’s privacy,’” the group argued.
The tea party groups likely have a tough road ahead of them.
A lower court dismissed True the Vote’s complaints along with those of several dozen other groups. It found no current harm because the IRS says it is no longer singling out the tea party and almost all of the groups have been approved for tax-exempt status.
Attorneys for the tea party groups say the judge did not address the sensitive information that the IRS still holds.