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Robin Abcarian: IRS unites nation with shoddy treatment of tea party groups

Thank you, IRS, for pulling off what no politician has been able to do. Mortal political enemies on both sides of the aisle agree: The IRS badly misstepped when it singled out for scrutiny groups with the words “tea party” and “patriots” in their names who had applied for tax-exempt status. That is a Nixon-worthy no-no.

Regardless of whether this practice simply represented a shortcut in the agency’s larger effort to evaluate the flood of applications for tax-exempt status in 2010 and 2011, as the agency maintains, it’s a ham-fisted way of doing business.

President Obama weighed in on the controversy Monday, calling the allegations “outrageous.” He vowed to hold whoever is responsible accountable.

Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder of Tea Party Patriots, one of the largest tea party groups in the country, told Fox News that the IRS had asked “very intrusive questions,” and demanded Facebook posts, comments, plus lists of donors. “Donations are supposed to be confidential,” she said.

“It’s taken a lot of time and cost a lot of money,” Martin said. “I understand when you are dealing with IRS, and you’re making application for tax-exempt status, you’ve got to make sure you are following all the rules and the laws.”

And here, I should pause for a big, giant irony alert.

The bigger issue at stake is probably going to be obscured by justifiably huffy allegations of IRS abuse. The real issue is the way political groups are getting away with undeserving tax-exempt status in the first place. Those groups are being subsidized by you, the taxpayer, to inappropriately engage in political campaigning.

How do they do that? By saying one thing and doing another.

Groups with the 501(c)(4) tax code designation are supposed to be engaged primarily in “social welfare” work. This is laughable, as anyone who has followed politics in the last couple of years can tell you.

The investigative journalism shop ProPublica calls the groups, used by conservatives and liberals alike, the “darkest corner of American political fund-raising.” Working on behalf of Republicans and Democrats, ProPublica found, the groups are “pouring much of their resources, directly or indirectly, into political races at the local, state and federal level.”

On Friday, the IRS official in charge of nonprofit designations, Lois Lerner, apologized for singling out tea party and patriot groups. “That was wrong, that was absolutely incorrect, insensitive and it was inappropriate,” Lerner said during a conference call. “That’s not how we go about selecting cases for further review.”

That apology did not appease Martin, who nevertheless refused to bite the bait when Fox News host Gretchen Carlson prompted, “Did this come from the top?”

“I don’t know whether it came from the top or not,” Martin said. “What I know is there is no way a couple of low-level employees out of Cincinnati, Ohio . had this much influence that could affect so many groups across the country - literally it was coast to coast.”

Martin’s instincts appear to be correct. On Monday, the Washington Post reported that IRS officials in Washington and two California offices were also involved in the “targeting of conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status.”

Later this week, when the inspector general releases a report detailing what happened, the nation should have a better idea of whether the targeting was for done for reasons of politics or bureaucratic expediency.

When all is said and done, it’s kind of hard to feel too sorry for some of these groups. After all, being able to accuse the IRS of inappropriately targeting your donation-dependent organization might be the best way ever to raise money. And you’re going to need the money. You know - for all that “social welfare” you’re planning in the 2014 election cycle.

Robin Abcarian is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.

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