05/21/2013 03:35 pm ET Updated Jul 21, 2013

Root Out Rogues at IRS

In all of the media hullabaloo over some conservative groups complaining that their tax-exempt applications were thwarted by the Internal Revenue Service, something big has been mostly missed: This is nothing new. It happened under the Bush administration too.

We know. It took almost three years for our progressive Center for a Better South to get its tax-exempt status approved. I'm convinced we finally got approval only after complaining about political zealotry at the IRS in a letter to the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Treasury.

In February 2005, the Center applied for tax-exempt status under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. In the application, the Center clearly demonstrated it was organized and would operate for the exempt purposes of conducting public policy research and education. The application noted the Center was a progressive policy organization, but it was neither partisan nor political. In fact during the three years that the IRS delayed approval of the Center's tax-exempt status, the Center published two books of pragmatic recommendations on tax and environmental policies that were well received by Democrats and Republicans.

But as we wrote in our complaint to the Treasury Department, the IRS engaged in a pattern of delays and discrimination regarding our application.

For example, look at an April 2007 letter from the Tax Exempt and Government and Entities Division that had so many inappropriate questions that it seemed obvious the IRS was on a political witch hunt:

"Please identify any persons on your Board of Advisors listed on the enclosed copy of your webpage that are not Democrat [sic] or progressive. If you cannot, please confirm that each member of that Board of Advisors is Democrat [sic] or progressive."

As we responded, we believed it was highly irregular to be asked about the political affiliation of any advisors, directors, bloggers or others involved with the Center. Even the way that the question was asked was suspect because it used an ungrammatical reference to Democrats and did not include a host of other political affiliations to be considered -- Republicans, Independents, Greens and more.

Regarding the IRS's delay tactics, that's evident in the fourth inquiry we got from the IRS in which it simply sought a written confirmation of the information that we had sent in earlier replies to three other letters. As we wrote in our November 2007 complaint to the Inspector General, "the Division may be committed to a strategy of endless letters of inquiry in an attempt to wear down the Center or extend the application for so long that we just go away."

In our complaint, we also asked the Inspector General's office to root out what had been going on with the Center's application and whether other similar organizations were subject to the same delays and intense scrutiny. We wrote (yes, in 2007):

"We hope the way our organization has been treated should be impetus enough for your office to start an inquiry for possible abuse by the Division in approving tax-exempt statuses."

That was five and a half years ago. It's clear that since then -- regardless of who is president -- the IRS hasn't stopped using its power to thwart organizations that want to make a substantive impact on the marketplace of ideas.

The media need to stop listening to critics who use any opportunity to chip away at President Obama. He's not the culprit here. The Internal Revenue Service is. It seems to harbor a rogue bureaucracy that's akin to a suck-up student who tattles on everyone in class just to get praise from a teacher.

Bottom line: Bureaucratic attempts to block the legitimate set-up of any tax-exempt nonprofit is an anathema to good government. Anybody at the IRS who has been involved in inappropriate targeting of tax-exempt applicants should be fired. Anyone who has broken the law should go to jail.

Andy Brack is president and chair of the Center for a Better South, which is based in Charleston, S.C.