WASHINGTON — The Internal Revenue Service is apologizing to Tea Party groups and other conservative organizations for what it now says were overzealous audits of their applications for tax-exempt status.
Lois Lerner, the director of the IRS division that oversees tax-exempt groups, acknowledged Friday that the agency had singled out nonprofit applicants with the terms “Tea Party” or “patriots” in their titles.
’’We made some mistakes; some people didn’t use good judgment,” she told reporters on a conference call. “For that we’re apologetic.”
The Republican-led U.S. House of Representatives will investigate the IRS's targeting of conservative groups during last year's election campaign, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said.
“The IRS cannot target or intimidate any individual or organization based on their political beliefs. The House will investigate this matter,” Cantor said.
In a statement, the agency said applications for nonprofit status had doubled from 2010 to 2012, a period that coincided with the Tea Party movement.
’’As a result, local career employees in Cincinnati sought to centralize work and assign cases to designated employees in an effort to promote consistency and quality,” the statement said. “While centralizing cases for consistency made sense, the way we initially centralized them did not. Mistakes were made initially, but they were in no way due to any political or partisan rationale.”
’’The IRS also stresses that our employees — all career civil servants — will continue to be guided by tax law and not partisan issues,” the statement concluded.
The apology could be a significant decision for the IRS, which has been caught between congressional Democrats pressing the agency to protect tax-exempt status more aggressively from overtly political groups and conservative groups claiming harassment.
Campaign finance watchdogs have said for years that 501(c)(4) tax exemptions were widely abused by conservative and liberal groups whose primary purpose is to influence elections, not to promote “social welfare,” as tax-exempt status mandates.
In early 2012, numerous Tea Party-affiliated groups came forward to charge the IRS with harassment for demanding that they fill out extensive — and intrusive — questionnaires before their tax-exempt applications could be approved. The questionnaires demanded detailed membership lists, contact information, logs of activities and other information about the groups’ intentions.
Many of those groups found representation with the conservative American Center for Law and Justice and its outspoken lead lawyer, Jay Sekulow, who accused the IRS of “McCarthyism” intended to stifle conservative speech.
The center called the apology “a significant victory for free speech.”
Under current law, tax-exempt 501(c)(4) organizations are supposed to be “primarily” engaged in social welfare work. In practice, groups like the conservative Crossroads GPS and the liberal Priorities USA appear to spend virtually all their efforts trying to sway elections.