It took a while for the Democrats to find their footing in the astonishing and appalling IRS scandal, but they now seem to have settled on a strategy. Conducting a good-faith investigation and reforming the agency is, of course, out of the question. (Indeed, the much-vaunted IRS investigation seems to be a Potemkin investigation, the FBI has not interviewed any of the targeted Tea Party groups — at least as of earlier this month.) No, Democrats like the IRS just the way it is.
So the strategy they have settled on is to allege that the IRS flagged for special scrutiny not only Tea Party and other conservative groups, but also progressive groups as well. This proves — supposedly — that the IRS was behaving in a non-partisan manner.
This narrative has a small grain of truth to it: The IRS did maintain BOLO (be on the lookout) lists of keywords to search for, and one of the many keywords was progressive. What the Democratic narrative leaves out is that the BOLO lists also instructed agents on what to do with the applicants that they flagged.
For Tea Party applicants the BOLO list instructed:
Any cases should be sent to group 7822. Liz Hofacre [more on this name later] is coordinating. These cases are currently being coordinated with EOT.
(The actual document is here.) From that referral, the harassment would begin.
The instructions for “progressive” applicants was entirely different:
Applicants submit form 1023. Their “progressive” activities appear to show that (c)(3) may not be appropriate.
What this means is that “progressive” groups appear to be involved in politics, which would make them ineligible to be 501(c)(3) “charitable” groups, to whom contributions are tax deductible. (This suggests that progressive groups had a history of improperly applying as 501(c)(3).) In contrast, most (perhaps all) Tea Party applicants applied as 501(c)(4) “social welfare organizations”, which are permitted some political activity.
In short, in regard to progressive groups, agents were just instructed to make sure that political groups were not applying 501(c)(3), which is entirely appropriate. The instructions did not prevent first-line screeners from approving the application, and they did not result in the kind of harassment that Tea Party applicants received.
Indeed, Liz Hofacre (the agent who received Tea Party applications) testified that, on the occasions in which she was sent a progressive application by mistake, she simply returned it:
When that occurred, pursuant to the instructions that were given to me, I would send those applications to general inventory since they were not within the scope of the Tea Party emerging issue.
(Emphasis mine.) And, if that that’s not clear enough, the notes for an IRS screening workshop specifically stated:
“Progressive” applications are not considered “Tea Parties”
(The actual document is here, hosted by the House Democrats, who have nevertheless failed to take notice of this particular element.) It should be obvious that there would be no need to distinguish progressive and Tea Party applicants if they both faced the same treatment.
To summarize then, progressive applicants faced only an appropriate review to ensure they weren’t trying to do politics under the 501(c)(3) umbrella, while Tea Parties were sent off for special treatment. Russell George, the Treasury Dept. Inspector General, made much of this explicit in his letter to the House Democrats:
Our audit did not find evidence that the IRS used the ‘progressives’ identifier as selection criteria for potential political cases between May 2010 and May 2012,” George wrote in the letter obtained by The Hill.
The inspector general stressed that 100 percent of the groups with “Tea Party,” “patriots” and “9/12” in their name were flagged for extra attention, while only 30 percent of the groups with “progress” or “progressive” were highlighted as potentially political. . .
“While we have multiple sources of information corroborating the use of Tea Party and other related criteria we described in our report, including employee interviews, e-mails and other documents, we found no indication in any of these other materials that ‘progressives’ was a term used to refer cases for scrutiny for political campaign intervention,” George wrote to Levin, the top Democrat on the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee.
However, having settled on a narrative, the Democrats are not likely to be turned aside merely by a letter from the Inspector Genera. They have simply added George to their attack list. Not only does this help preserve their narrative, it also helps to neutralize the investigation.