Here’s a headline published Thursday by The Washington Examiner: “Treasury: IRS targeted 292 Tea Party groups, just 6 progressive groups.”
That 292 number? It’s flat wrong.These pieces were all about undercutting a claim made by Democrats this week — that liberal groups were also affected by the IRS’ inappropriate screening and handling of applications for tax-exempt status. That claim, in turn, rested on the newly learned fact that the term “progressive” appeared on “Be On The Lookout” (BOLO) lists used by the IRS in recent years, and the subsequent disclosure from the IRS inspector general that six groups with “progress” or “progressive” in their names had their applications for tax-exempt status included in a group of “potential political cases” by the IRS.
To understand how conservative outlets flubbed the numbers so badly, you have to go back to the original Inspector General for Tax Administration report released last month. The report stated that between May 2010 and May 2012, the IRS identified 298 applications for tax-exempt status that needed further review as “potential political cases.” Of those, the inspector general said, a majority of the applications “included indications of significant political campaign intervention.” Put simply, most of the 298 groups put into the political case group deserved to be in there — even if the way they were identified for inclusion had been improper. And the inspector general also found that 91 groups had been deemed potential political cases no indication of significant political activity in their applications. (IRS officials disputed this finding, the IG also points out.)
We now know, thanks to a letter the inspector general, J. Russell George, sent to Rep. Sander Levin (D-MI) on Wednesday, that six groups with “progress” or “progressive” in their names were among the 298 “potential political cases.” Subtract those six from the total 298, and you get the 292 number that appeared in the headlines. But George’s letter did not mean, as the conservative outlets seem to think, that the rest of those groups were tea party groups. The inspector general report contains the actual number: 96 of the 298 groups deemed “potential political cases” had the terms tea party, patriots, or 9/12 in their names. That leaves 196 “potential political cases” whose political leanings we don’t know. They could be liberal. They could be conservative. They could be communist.
George’s letter to Levin may be the source of the confusion. In it, George wrote that while six groups with “progress” or “progressive” in their names had been put in the political case group between May 2010 and May 2012, 14 groups with those terms in their names that applied for tax-exempt status at the same time had not been referred for additional scrutiny as potential political cases.
“In comparison, our audit found that 100 percent of the tax-exempt applications with TeaParty, Patriots, or 9/12 in their names were processed as potential political cases during the timeframe of our audit,” George wrote.
Conservatives seemed to have turned that “100 percent” figure into the 292 number.
There’s an additional wrinkle in the original IG report to keep in mind. As mentioned above, there were 91 groups whose applications ended up in the potential political case group despite not appearing to be heavily involved in politics. Of those, just 17 had the terms Tea Party, Patriots, or 9/12 in their names. In other words, most of the tea party groups that ended up as “potential political cases” were identified for the right reason, even if the way they were identified (screening for particular terms in their names) and the subsequent treatment of those applications (intrusive letters, long wait periods) was improper.
In his letter to Levin on Wednesday, George did not indicate whether the six “progress” and “progressive” groups in the “potential political case” group had evidence of political activity in their applications, and he did not elaborate on the subsequent treatment the IRS gave those applications. And it’s not even clear yet how those six applicants ended up in the political group. George’s letter also states that the section of the BOLO lists where the term “progressive” appeared was not specifically used to refer cases for scrutiny of political activity.
Laws controlling the release of taxpayer information mean we might never get an exact breakdown of the political leanings of the 298 “potential political cases.” But its definitely not 292 to 6.
Clarification: This article has been updated to clarify that the 14 groups with “progress” or “progressive” in their name that were not referred for additional scrutiny as potential political cases may have received additional scrutiny for other reasons.