WASHINGTON -- The Inspector General's office looking into the Internal Revenue Service's screening practices for groups applying for tax-exempt status may not have specifically investigated tea party groups. But its investigation did primarily center on a universe of groups that included conservative organizations and not progressive ones.
The question over how TIGTA's investigation was structured has become significant over the past week after reports emerged that progressive organizations had also been placed on the IRS's internal Be On The Lookout (BOLO) lists for groups requesting 501(c)(4) status.
Had TIGTA studied only the IRS's treatment of tea party groups, its investigation wouldn't be to explain whether the scrutiny applied to conservative organizations was uniquely malicious. Had TIGTA investigated IRS screening practices more broadly, then its conclusion that tea party groups got the short end of the stick would place a serious blemish on the tax agency.
Finding an answer to this question has been surprisingly difficult, turning the IRS scandal into a wonky, difficult-to-follow conversation on bureaucratic processes and strictures. We are past the weeds and approaching the soil.
In their initial response to the news that progressive groups were also on the BOLO lists, TIGTA officials explained that they had not investigated the screening of such groups because their mission statement was restrictive. The House Oversight Committee had asked them to "narrowly focus on tea party organizations," and they did just that.
But the next day, in a letter to Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.), the ranking member of the House Ways and Means Committee, Inspector General Russell George said that the explanation from his staff was "not accurate." TIGTA "reviewed all cases that the IRS identified as potential political cases and did not limit our audit to allegations related to the Tea Party."
The question became what, exactly, was a "potential political case." On the BOLOs that have been released publicly, there is no such delineation. Progressive groups are placed under the "Touch and Go Historical" subsection, while tea party groups are placed under the "Emerging Issues" subsection.
So did TIGTA investigate both, or one or the other?
"The IRS used the 'emerging issues' section of the BOLO listing to select 'potential political cases' for review," said Karen Kraushaar, TIGTA's communications director, in an email. "The IRS also states that its specialists interpreted the general criteria in the BOLO listing and developed expanded criteria for identifying potential political cases. The expanded criteria included names (Patriots and 9/12 Project), as well as policy positions espoused by organizations in their applications, that were not included in the BOLO listing."
Kraushaar's answer sheds some light on the current debate over TIGTA's report and the IRS scandal more broadly. According to Russell and his staff, the IRS identified instances of potential political campaigning by wannabe 501(c)(4) groups listed under the "emerging issues" section of the BOLO, so investigators focused their attention there.
TIGTA did not investigate how the IRS treated those groups that fell under the "Touch and Go Historical" section.
TIGTA officials have defended the decision not to look into the "Touch and Go Historical" groups in two ways. First, they say doing so was beyond their mission statement. Second, according to George's letter, they say they "did not have indications or other evidence" that the "Touch and Go Historical" section "was in use for selecting potential political cases from May 2010 to May 2012."
Democrats see the situation differently. One top congressional aide wondered whether an investigation looking further back than May 2010 (when the tea party was emerging as a major political force) would find indications or evidence of extra scrutiny of progressive groups.
The aide also noted that the BOLO itself suggests the IRS was screening progressive groups for potential campaign activity. IRS agents were told to watch out for "political activities" and told that progressive groups "appear to lean toward a new political party ... are partisan and appear as anti-Republican."
But without full knowledge of the type of scrutiny applied to progressive groups in the "Touch and Go Historical" section, it's difficult to judge whether the scrutiny of groups in the "emerging issues" section was atypical.
"The fact is that the BOLO lists also included the term 'progressive' and listed 'political activities' as the reason for screening those organizations through the BOLO," said Josh Drobnyk, a spokesman for Levin. "Yet TIGTA’s audit makes no mention of this fact, nor did it review when and why 'progressive' was added to the BOLO and what happened to 'progressive' cases that were flagged."