WASHINGTON -- In a written response to the Treasury Department's inspector general for tax administration, senior Internal Revenue Service official Joseph Grant gave an account of why agents created criteria that targeted conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status, an explanation that differs from later testimony by another IRS official to the inspector general and subsequent statements by key IRS officials.

"In February 2010 activity in the area of significant spending by 501(c)(4) organizations seeking to influence elections began to increase. To better identify such cases, and to ensure consistent treatment of them, EO [exempt organizations] specialists and a frontline EO manager created a spreadsheet listing issues for which specialists should be on the lookout, referred to as the BOLO [be-on-the-lookout] list. This list did include a reference to the Tea Party movement," wrote Grant, the IRS commissioner for tax-exempt and government entities who has announced that he is retiring next month amidst the scandal.

The key difference between Grant's November 2012 statement, made public by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and those from other IRS officials is that he said the criteria were developed in response to "significant spending ... seeking to influence elections" rather than in answer to an uptick in the number of 501(c)(4) applications, as other officials have said.

In her written response to the inspector general, Lois Lerner, the IRS director of the exempt organizations division who is now on administrative leave, wrote, "In early 2010, EO Determinations witnessed an uptick in the numbers of applications for 501(c)(3) or 501(c)(4) status that contained indicators of significant political campaign intervention." (In the IRS hierarchy, Grant oversaw Lerner.)

Lerner further stated, in her awkward May 10 acknowledgement and apology for the targeting of conservative groups, that "we saw a big increase in these kind of applications, many of which indicated that they were going to be involved in advocacy work." Top IRS officials have since offered the same explanation.

Members of both parties, the inspector general's report, and senior officials at the IRS now agree that agents should not have used name- and policy-specific criteria to identify groups for further review and that the extensive questionnaires sent out were both "inappropriate" and "offensive." It's why the agents did it that apparently remains unclear.

Grant's assertion is actually more plausible than the explanation offered by other officials. According to the Treasury Department inspector general's report, there was no increase in 501(c)(4) applications in 2010. A significant increase did occur over the course of 2011 and 2012, but the IRS' Cincinnati office began to develop the targeting criteria in March 2010, according to the inspector general's report.

There is one problem with Grant's statement: Federal Election Commission reports do not show any increase in nonprofit political spending in February 2010, as he states.

But overall spending by nonprofit groups had already exploded after the Supreme Court's 2007 ruling in Wisconsin Right to Life v. FEC allowed corporate money back into elections, if only to fund certain issue-related spending. (The court's 2010 Citizens United ruling would undo all barriers for corporate money spent on independent political efforts.) According to the Center for Responsive Politics, nonprofit groups reported spending $5 million on federal elections in 2004. That number dropped to a little more than $400,000 in 2006, but then soared to more than $77 million in the 2008 election.

Moreover, nonprofit spending did feature prominently in a well-known January 2010 political contest.

The special election that month to fill the seat of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) -- a contest between then-Massachusetts state Sen. Scott Brown, a Republican, and state Attorney General Martha Coakley, a Democrat -- attracted national attention and major (at that time) outside spending, as conservative groups sought to grab a Senate seat in deep blue territory and and a few liberal allies sought to help Coakley hold the seat. Nonprofit groups organized under sections 501(c)(4) and (c)(6), including the American Future Fund, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the League of Conservation Voters, spent $2.6 million in one month on the special election, according to FEC reports.

While these types of groups had spent similar amounts or more during the 2008 presidential primaries, there was no precedent for this level of nonprofit spending on a congressional race outside of a general election since the 2002 McCain-Feingold law required public reporting of certain election-related issue spending.

After the Citizens United ruling, which came down on the same day that Brown won the special Massachusetts Senate election, nonprofit political spending flew through the roof. By the 2012 election, the top 10 campaign spenders among 501(c)(4) nonprofits would expend a total of $210 million, according to the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit promoting transparency in government and politics.

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  • President Barack Obama

    "This is pretty straightforward," Obama said at a <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/05/13/obama-irs-scandal_n_3266577.html" target="_blank">press conference</a>. "If, in fact, IRS personnel engaged in the kind of practices that have been reported on and were intentionally targeting conservative groups, then that is outrageous, and there is no place for it, and they have to be held fully accountable, because the IRS as an independent agency requires absolute integrity and people have to have confidence that they are applying the laws in a non-partisan way. You should feel that way regardless of party." (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

  • Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.)

    Rubio <a href="http://www.rubio.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/press-releases?ID=bc8ce2a9-4e95-4792-8744-501d0c1b63b3" target="_blank">penned a letter</a> to Treasury Secretary Jack Lew demanding the IRS commissioner's resignation. The letter begins: "Recent revelations about the Internal Revenue Service’s selective and deliberate targeting of conservative organizations are outrageous and seriously concerning. This years-long abuse of government power is an assault on the free speech rights of all Americans. This direct assault on our Constitution further justifies the American people’s distrust in government and its ability to properly implement our laws." (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

  • House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio)

    "The admission by the Obama administration that the Internal Revenue Service targeted political opponents echoes some of the most shameful abuses of government power in 20th-century American history. Today, we are left with serious questions: who is ultimately responsible for this travesty? What actions will the Obama administration take to hold them accountable? And have other federal agencies used government powers to attack Americans for partisan reasons? House Republicans have made oversight of federal agencies a top priority on behalf of the American people, and I applaud the work that members such as Charles Boustany, Darrell Issa and Jim Jordan have done to bring this issue to light. I also strongly support Sen. McConnell’s call for a transparent, government-wide review to ensure similar practices are not happening elsewhere in the federal bureaucracy," Boehner said in a <a href="http://www.speaker.gov/press-release/speaker-boehner-statement-irs-targeting-conservative-groups" target="_blank">statement</a>. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

  • Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.)

  • Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.)

  • Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.)

  • Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa)

  • Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.)

    Buchanan also <a href="http://buchanan.house.gov/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=4787:buchanan-to-treasury-secretary-the-nations-trust-in-government-was-betrayed&catid=1:latest-news" target="_blank">wrote a letter</a> calling for the IRS commissioner's resignation. His letter reads: "On March 22, 2012, as a member of the House Ways and Means Committee which oversees the IRS, we heard then-Commissioner Douglas Shulman clearly state that the IRS did not engage in the practices of which it is now accused saying "there is absolutely no targeting." Yet, less than a year earlier, Commissioner Shulman's own deputy, Lois Lerner, was made aware that such malpractice had indeed occurred. It became evident that groups with "tea party" or "patriot" in their names were extremely vulnerable to auditing harassment. Even nonprofit organizations that sought to educate Americans about the U.S. Constitution were unfairly singled out for scrutiny. The nation's trust in government was betrayed by this unconscionable behavior. On behalf of my constituents, your immediate response is not only warranted but essential to clearing up a matter that would have our founding fathers rolling in their graves." (AP Photo/Steve Nesius, File)

  • Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.)

  • Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.)

  • Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.)

  • Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas)

  • Rep. Erik Paulsen (R-Minn.)

    "It is unconscionable that the IRS deliberately targeted individuals based on their political beliefs. Absolutely no one should come under extra scrutiny from the IRS because of their political affiliation. It’s simply un-American," Paulsen said in a <a href="http://paulsen.house.gov/press-releases/paulsen-statement-on-fridays-hearing-examining-irs-targeting-conservative-groups/" target="_blank">statement</a>. (Photo by Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

  • Rep. Kenny Marchant (R-Texas)

    “I have long been concerned with reports that the IRS has unfairly targeted some political groups over others – a charge that they have repeatedly denied. In March 2012, I sent IRS Commissioner Doug Shulman a letter demanding an explanation of this unacceptable behavior. Now, more than a year later, the IRS has admitted to what we have long suspected – it was targeting tea party groups. The IRS’s actions are unacceptable, and I commend Chairman Dave Camp and Oversight Subcommittee Chairman Charles Boustany for moving forward with a full investigation. We will continue to work to ensure there are protections in place so no American, regardless of political affiliation, has their right to free speech threatened by the IRS," Marchant said in a <a href="http://marchant.house.gov/news/documentsingle.aspx?DocumentID=333635" target="_blank">statement</a>. (Photo By Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call)

  • Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah)

  • Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.)

  • Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.)

  • Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.)

  • Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.)

  • Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.)

    <i>CORRECTION: An earlier version of this slideshow incorrectly identified Udall as a Republican.</i>

  • Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.)

  • Rep. Aaron Schock (R-Ill.)

  • Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas)

    “Today’s revelation that the IRS targeted average Americans using taxpayer dollars solely for disagreeing with them politically is completely unacceptable from this Administration. “Partisan politics have consistently characterized this White House, and the Administration must take immediate disciplinary action and ensure American citizens are not subject to this type of Orwellian persecution again," Cornyn said in a <a href="http://www.cornyn.senate.gov/public/index.cfm?p=NewsReleases&ContentRecord_id=ebc9edeb-f748-45cf-a6b3-0143c6cb41c0" target="_blank">statement</a>. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)