Nonprofit Political Activities: Lois Lerner

Non-profit political activities: answers for the file
Three Silver Rivers | “Black Money”
Dangers of Donor Disclosure | Lois Lerner

Senator Thune: Is it correct that Lois Lerner was exonerated in subsequent investigations into the targeting controversy?

Bradley A. Smith: No it is wrong.

Final investigations of the General Inspectorate of the Treasury of the Tax Administration (TIGTA)[1] and the Senate Finance Committee[2] both concluded that the IRS’ initial assessments of political targeting were, in fact, correct. The IRS under Lois Lerner targeted conservative and Tea Party groups specifically because they were conservative and Tea Party groups.

A counter-narrative has emerged that downplays the IRS scandal by claiming that because a few progressive groups also had their applications for tax-exempt status flagged and delayed, it is untrue to say that the IRS was targeting on the basis of the political discourse of the groups. This narrative ignores evidence of both the scale and severity of targeting against right-wing groups as opposed to left-wing groups.

First, this counter-narrative relies on a 2017 TIGTA audit report[3] this indicated that the IRS’s review of tax exemption claims included other types of alleged political activity in addition to conservatives. But that report covered a period that began in 2004, six years before the IRS began tea party case activity in 2010. The Treasury press release accompanying the 2017 report noted numerous issues with attempting to compare the TIGTA 2017 audit report with the seminal 2013 TIGTA audit report. Citing this report to claim that the IRS did not disproportionately target conservative groups beginning in 2010 is a bit like claiming that the United States was not a major world power after World War II. because their economy was in depression in the 1930s.

It’s the numbers from the actual scandal period that matter, not the numbers from the period before the IRS began targeting conservative groups. And what are these numbers? The IRS itself found that among the groups targeted by the IRS as of 2010:

Of the 84(c)(3) cases, just over half appear to be conservative-leaning groups based on name alone. The others obviously do not lean on any side of the political spectrum. Of the 199(c)(4) cases, about ¾ appear to be conservative leaning, while less than 10 appear to be liberal/progressive leaning groups based on name alone.[4]

So while it’s true that IRS screening for political activity (including the infamous BOLO list) has occasionally captured non-conservative groups, the vast majority – and clear focus – of the program was targeting conservatives. Hundreds of right-wing groups were affected against less than ten left-wing groups.

That alone should settle the debate, and yet it still fails to capture the full extent of the IRS’ mistreatment of conservative groups. The initial targeting, after all, was only the first step. The real damage done was the long delays in approving groups’ tax-exempt status. Here, too, the IRS found that liberal-coded groups and conservative-coded groups received very different treatment. The 2017 TIGTA report found that most left-leaning groups that were “targeted” still had their tax-exempt status approved within two years, and the majority were approved within the first year. The reverse was true for right-wing groups: the overwhelming majority were unapproved in two years, according to the 2013 TIGTA report.

As the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals stated, “The IRS used political criteria to round up tax exemption claims filed by the so-called tea groups; … the IRS often took four times longer to process tea party applications than other applications; …the IRS served tea party applicants with overwhelming demands for what the inspector general called “unnecessary information.”[5]

Lois Lerner herself admitted that the IRS’ behavior was inappropriate, both in the question she posed at a public tax forum in an attempt to preempt the IRS audit, and in her statement to Congress before invoking his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Lerner, of course, was found in contempt of Congress. While the Justice Department declined to prosecute Ms Lerner in 2015, evidence is overwhelming that the IRS’ Exempt Organizations Unit deliberately discriminated against conservative groups while she was director.


[1] United States Department of Treasury, Inspector General of Tax Administration, “Inappropriate Criteria Were Used to Identify Tax-Exempt Applications for Review,” May 14, 2013, /201310053fr. pdf.

[2] US Senate, Committee on Finance, Bipartisan Inquiry Report as submitted by Chairman Hatch and Ranking Member WydenAugust 5, 2015. Available at:

[3] United States Department of the Treasury, Inspector General for Tax Administration, “Review of Selected Criteria Used to Identify Tax-Exempt Applications for Review,” Report 114-119, September 28, 2017, /tigta/auditreports/2017reports/201710054en.pdf.

[4] Identifier. In Annex IV

[5] United States vs. NorCal Tea Party Patriots (with respect to the United States), 817 F.3d 953 (6th Cir. 2016)

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