Journalism in the Public Interest

Sound, Fury and the IRS Mess

ProPublica’s job is to report the news rather than to make
news ourselves, but sometimes we find an article of ours to be itself a subject
of public debate. Last week was
such a time, when two articles we had published back in December and January became the
subject of significant attention in light of the uproar over IRS oversight of
the process for granting tax exemption to so-called “social welfare” groups
under section 501(c)(4).


ProPublica’s job is to report the news rather than to make news ourselves, but sometimes we find an article of ours to be itself a subject of public debate. Last week was such a time, when two articles we had published back in December and January became the subject of significant attention in light of the uproar over IRS oversight of the process for granting tax exemption to so-called “social welfare” groups under section 501(c)(4). We triggered that attention, with a third article we published on May 13, setting out everything we knew about the circumstances of our previous stories.

Largely ignored in a public outcry last week—radio rants, Twitter storms, congressional, presidential and prosecutorial posturing-- were the following:

Our pieces in December and January raised very serious questions about whether six different “dark money” political groups seeking tax exemption had made false statements on their applications. Those applications are signed under penalty of perjury . If any false statements were made knowingly, the groups— including Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS —may have committed a crime. There is no indication, however, that either the IRS or the Department of Justice has done anything since January to investigate whether such crimes were indeed committed. The groups in question happen all to be conservative. Not one congressional Republican has, to my knowledge, expressed any concern about this possible criminality.

Even more remarkably, leading public figures have asserted as fact that they know how we came to receive nine documents in the mail—statements that appear to have little basis (and in some cases, no basis at all).

The former acting Commissioner of Internal Revenue said on May 17 that the agency’s inspector general had found that the disclosure to us was “inadvertent”—we had requested the applications, but they should not have been sent to us before they were approved. The IRS followed later the same day with a statement to the same effect—but then refused to answer questions about who had made the mistake, and why they should be believed when they denied having acted intentionally (and thus likely denied committing a crime).

What really seems to have happened at the IRS in Cincinnati, across the last three presidencies (a Democrat, then a Republican, then a Democrat), and across two turns of the partisan screw in the House of Representatives, from Republicans to Democrats to Republicans again, is that the agency has been starved of resources, and badly mismanaged.

But while it took the IRS four long days to tell people about their conclusion of “inadvertence” and the same four days for ProPublica to report out the dysfunction , people like Rush Limbaugh, and their followers and fellow travelers on Twitter and in the fringe press, rushed headlong to judgment. Here’s what Limbaugh said about the mid-level federal employees at the IRS in Cincinnati on Tuesday: “The people at these government agencies have been stocked with leftists for decades now, and they’re all activists.” What evidence did he offer for this? None. How could he know that someone in a large bureaucracy, shuffling thousands of pieces of paper, didn’t make a mistake? He couldn’t, and he didn’t.

Well, you might say, that’s Limbaugh. But it wasn’t just Limbaugh. Stephen Moore writes for the Wall Street Journal (where I worked for 15 years, and where Mr. Rove also writes). Yet, he called the documents we were sent “ illegally leaked .” He knew nothing more than Limbaugh. “What is the motivation,” Moore asked, “for leaking these documents? The answer is that the left is trying to dry up the money of tea party and conservative groups by intimidating donors.” He noted that another group, in another case, had its donor list released. But in our case, there were no donor lists, and we had redacted the limited financial information on the forms we published. Moreover, these applications are completed with the expectation that they’ll eventually be made public—because they are when they are approved. Never mind all that; presumably no need to mention it.

And what of the investigators? Congressional committees leapt into action. The inspector general for the IRS had apparently already investigated. The President demanded another investigation; the Department of Justice said it had commenced a criminal inquiry.

Knowing that such is the way in Washington, we waited at ProPublica for someone to send us a subpoena, show up on our doorstep, or maybe just call. Nothing. Nothing since December 13, when we told the IRS we had these documents they weren’t supposed to have sent us—or since the next day, when we published that fact. Nothing before the inspector general reached his conclusion, nothing before the congressional hearings started televising their demands for answers and their righteous indignation, nothing since.

In point of fact, the investigators would have found out that we have nothing of value to them. But the fact that they didn’t even ask tells you a lot. And it reinforces the point that much of the heat generated last week on this subject is just the latest expression of Washington cynicism and its consequences—that the talk show hosts and their fellow travelers, and the representatives and senators and officials in the executive branch, aren’t really looking for answers here. They’re just putting on a show.


May 21, 2013, 9:38 a.m.

The reason no one showed up at your doorstep or sent a subpoena registered-Democrat Toefel is because the Administration is not about to arrest you for carrying their water for them.

They leaked to you because they knew as a leftist “news” org you’d print whatever it was they wanted you to print and not as pesky questions like “why were only conservative groups targeted” and “gee, I wonder if we should look into if any leftist groups were picked on for special attention.”

You and your leftist ProPublica “aren’t really looking for answers here” or, perhaps more specifically, you “aren’t really looking for answers that put the Administration in a bad light” or “aren’t really looking for answers here that aren’t spoon fed via selective leaks against conservative groups.”

The problem is that partisanism, whether it’s Democrat-Republican, Yankees-Red Sox, or Pepsi-Coke sells ad inches/seconds, whereas the truth…not so much.  Emotion sells.

However, that doesn’t let ProPublica off the hook, in my eyes, here.  The narrative I’ve seen here, over the last few days, seems to be struggling to agree that the IRS just made a mistake and that, somehow, these investigations shouldn’t have happened.

I don’t understand that.  As you point out in the article, the targeted organizations likely broke the law, so accepting excuses of errors and isolated instances—instead of calling for wider probes—seems like accepting corruption as a natural thing and denying that we have a vested interest in knowing who’s spending money on elections.


May 21, 2013, 10:16 a.m.

There’s not one shred of evidence “the targeted organizations likely broke the law.” I know that is what you leftist want to think, but that’s simply not true. The sole reason they were picked on was their politics and their names.

“The promotion of social welfare does not include direct or indirect participation or intervention in political campaigns on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate for public office.”

Straight from the IRS guidelines for a 501(c)4.

When a group called “Tea Party Patriots” is applying for status as a NON POLITICAL group, there should be a bit of investigation, just like I would hope a group with Democrat or Republican in the name would be investigated.

I agree, the investigations took WAY too long, but that’s what happens when you go from 1700 applications to 3300 in two years AND you cut funding.

John Gorgonzola

May 21, 2013, 4:14 p.m.

You know that when you, as reporter, become part of the story that no good will come of it.
This PP piece today is just inviting problems.  You are beginning to volley with the people yapping at the IRS—and yapping with good reason for IRS incompetence and negligence at a minimum. 
We will see yet again that there is scant penalty in the government for mismanagement, but one would think that news organizations that become protagonists will be deeply soiled in the process.
Don’t give up your position, but don’t invite problems by seeking to respond to gamey charges.  Just sayin’.

Congress is not looking for answers and is just deploying theatrical outrage, that the laws they passed with the intended consequence allowed the evasion of rules. What the taxpayers need is the appointment of an Independent Counsel to look at the clams of all the 501(c)4 groups that had any political dealings. - Of course that would not happen, because Congress and both parties would be very embarrassed when the taxpayers see that the Parties wear no clothes.
  The solution? Abolish 501(c4) and make everyone publish their contributors and donors to the biggest bribery scheme in the country.

Wes (or is that “Workers Employing Sarcasm”), Wes, Wes.  You’ve been watching too many of those super-villain movies where there’s a convenient “Destruct” button on the wall which the hero spots and pushes.

In the IRS-Universe, the overworked apparatchiks can catch those clever-politicians-would-be 501c4-organizers merely by screening for certain right-wing sounding words in the organizations’ proposed name.  Something equally politically poisonous, try ACORN or “Gore’s Goons”,  will sail right through in as little as a month.  No “bit of an investigation” there, eh?  No time for one.

Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 558 U.S. 310 (2010) supersedes your cited IRS criteria (yes, I saw the update date, but being current doesn’t make it valid law). 

But what do I know?  I think everyone, including all not-for-profits of whatever type, should be taxed with none this fantasy-land parsing between the good, the bad and the ugly.  I would prefer to remove the governments power of making distinctions to hobble the current administration’s opponents and give a helping hand to its partisans.  Need you ask why?  Because people will be as corrupt as they are allowed to be.  Less power, less corruption.

This has nothing to do with resources, this has everything to do with political perspective, the IRS was functioning and maybe still functioning as an arm of the administration!  Somebody should be going to jail, to say is a lack of resources is laughing in the face the facts.

Conservative groups are targeted, liberal groups were not they were given quick turnaround by IRS.

More than anything this points to what the Tea Party has been saying, government is too big out-of-control.

And I for one am damned sick of paying for their shows.

If ProPublica had evenhandedly reported “dark money” spent through 501(c)4 groups - including money spent through MoveOn Civic Action and dozens of other groups with which ProPublica shares revenue sources, it wouldn’t need to come crying and whimpering to readers about “sound and fury” that resulted from it’s attempt to call the shots for partisan interests working inside regulatory agencies.

Instead, ProPublica hides its own revenue sources, pretends not to have a bias then gets all up in our face to cover it’s own nasty tracks. You want to be partisan? Be partisan, but don’t fool yourself that you’ve convinced any of us who truly hold no partisan allegiance that you are not plainly serving one side of the political spectrum.

The government is that of a Third World Country. We have a President who chooses to divide us rather than bring us together. We have Colleges and Universities who admit that 80-85% are overflowing with Liberals and Progressives. These are the ones who become REPORTERS and JOURNALISTS that feed the public “objective” interpretation of the news. We have conservatives (that nasty sounding word again) that are taken to task for preaching family values, God, and guns. We have a government way to large, over reaching , and costly. We have politicians and staff in bed with every questionable element in society and all to fleece the public and line their own pockets. I have often wondered what would happen when we become a one party nation. To the extreme, would we have to fear the sound of boots at the front door? The press and media are a political party of themselves. It would be nice to have Democrats, Republicans, Liberterians, and NEUTRALS. Wait! What is that I hear coming up to my front door?

Is anyone else here as weary as I with Templeton’s tiresome, partisan tub-thumping rhetoric. A one-note tune gets tiresome, Johnny-O.

James M. Fitzsimmons

May 21, 2013, 7:05 p.m.

How does the IRS “inadvertently” disseminate its sensitive records to PP? Because of a shortage of IRS manpower? PP asked serious questions about “dark money” political groups making false official statements. Seems to me that this characterization suggests an answer to the question to its readership. “Sound and fury” is a phrase that Administration apologists might want to stay away from because it hits rather close to home. Nothing to see about Benghazi or the targeting of the Fox Reporter or the AP subpoenas either. No pattern of deceit or arrogance. Meanwhile David Sanger of the NYT’s discloses in a book Confront and Conceal details of Stuxnut and other sensitive information and will probably get a Pulitzer as well as a lot of cash.

Why does the author repeatedly call conservatives “fellow travelers”? Surely he knows the term has historically been associated with communists? Odd choice.

First of all Pro Publica is going to be prosecuted for anything in this nor should it be but the person who sent the forms should be.

With the AP phone activity being tracked over a story they happen to break the day before the administration was going to and that now we find out too that Fox News phones were tapped and one of their reporters accused to be a “co-conspirator” for talking to a source. Is none of this troubling to you PP? It’s like what Kirsten Powers said when the administration was trying to sideline Fox News, only one person from another network said something the rest of you were silent.

So again SHAME ON YOU. You are supposed to be defenders of the First Amendment. Now you should be reflecting if you still deserve that Pulitzer.

My, my, my, Difficult ProPublica to point fingers when your fingers were caught in the cookie jar.

How very interesting that at yesterday’s conservative protest of the IRS in St Louis you didn’t see any local law enforcement but DHS’s armed police…errr….Obama thugs.

On another note, this is what Geo Soros had in mind when propping up ProPublica with large amounts of cash. That’s fine but conservatives need a voice too!

John, if you look at the application form, it asks to describe the purpose.  The guidelines for a 501(c)(4), as Wes pointed out, require that the purpose be non-political in nature.  The form is signed under penalty of perjury.

Perjury, last I checked, is against the law.  Therefore, if a 501(c)(4) engaged with politics, it broke the law.

I realize that Congress doesn’t agree with such details and was distracted by a blue dress in the Clinton Impeachment, rather than focus on the evidence of the crime with which he was accused.  But it still is a crime, in contrast to infidelity.  By the U.S. Code, it’s punishable by up to five years in prison (plus a fine).

On top of that, if the application was untruthful, then the organizations also committed tax fraud and money laundering by definition.

Byron, Citizens United isn’t related to the criteria for getting tax exemption (taxpayer subsidies).  It said that (if you read it—it’s on the Supreme Court’s website, after all, with a very readable overview), until Congress fixes the bad laws, it’s legal for a private organization to contribute to campaigns.  But that doesn’t even remotely imply that the rest of us should work harder to help foot their bill.

Re John, “Byron, Citizens United isn’t related to the criteria for getting tax exemption (taxpayer subsidies). “

Darn it.  Guilty.

Susan Winchester

May 22, 2013, 11:44 a.m.

Of the approximately 1700 applications, 298 were asked for additional information. 78 of these were conservative groups. No mention has been made of the other organizations. There were errors in the IG’s report - for example, it said that 501(c)(3) organizations are not required to disclose donors, This is patently false. Additionally, the regulations were misquoted regarding primary purpose.

The questions that should be asked are (1) how did exclusive purpose (in the law) morph into primary purpose (in regulations) to more than half (conservative organizations)? (2) Why is the law not being enforced as written? (3) Why are conservative legislators interfering with federal and state officials as they try to investigate abuse by 501(c)(4) and (c)(5) organizations? When IRS tried to find out how much abuse there was of the 501(c)(4) and (c)(5) exempt status, Republicans in Congress raised a stink and got IRS to back off. When the NY AG started to investigate violations of state election laws by these groups, Congressional Republicans again tried to get him to back off,

You know, before this article, I kinda though that ProPublica was just the innocent (sorta) recient of information from the IRS.  Thanks, you have convinced me you were not innocent.  You are on the payrole.  You (not the tea-partiers) are the ‘fellow travelors’
As for proof, where have you been?????? The Head of the IRS has admitted that he is not responsible for oversight.  The DOT IG has said that you were illegally given the material.  The person who ran the department has just taken the 5th.  When you take the 5th, the courts may not infer guilt.  But I sure as heck may, and have.  This stinks to high hell, and you smeared yourself in it.

I am considered by most people to be conservative.  However, I consider myself to be middle-of-the-road; and in some issues left of center.  As a result, I read PP to try to understand all sides of an issue.  After reading this article, I came away with one opinion. 

You sounded like all the talking heads on the left and the right.  Of greater impact was the tone of the article.  that was evidence of unprofessionalism.  You sounded like a 5 year old that didn’t get his way.  Just a “FELLOW TRAVELER”.

John Henry Bicycle Lucas

May 22, 2013, 9:31 p.m.

The difference between Rush and the people testifying before congressional hearing is, Rush is not under oath, he does not have to tell the truth. We can choose to listen to Rush, or change the station. We cannot choose to change the station on the IRS.

Rush is full of himself, he is on the payroll of the Republican Party, it is obvious. Blatantly. He actually thinks HE alone can affect change simply by mouthing it on his radio program. I listen to his program sometimes. Just because I do not agree with someone does not mean they have nothing valid to say.

Whistle blowers, supposedly protected by law, have no other way to demand that the agency they work in work for the best interest of the public other than letting items get into the hands of the media. When the media outlets decide to play along. If they go up the chain of command as they are supposed to do they are damned, if they go over heads in their organization, they are damned.

The present leadership (if you can call it that) is in need of some scapegoats in a bad way right now because a lot of the illegal, underhanded, back door, in the dark, cloak and dagger stuff is about to all come crashing in on the little world of DC politics. Everyone is trying to blame someone else because the light is about to be turned on and the heat is going to come down one way or another. Bengazi, the tracking of the reporters, the IRS scandal, wow lots of things going on at once.

Why did Obama recently joke about having his own enforcement arm in the IRS? I bet it is not so amusing to him now…

Our country is in a postion of impending collapse if we as a people do not begin to start using our cognitive thought processes and use some critical thinking skills. We can sit and watch the transformation of what was at one time a great nation into a corporatism, communism, socialism blend of the worst form of tyranny. We the people…well, we need to rise up and take CONTROL of this runaway freight train, cause the curve just up the line has a bridge in the middle of it.

Want to know why our revolution was fought? Just look at our current form of government and study a little history.

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