May 20: Listen to ProPublica editor-in-chief Steve Engelberg talk to Kim Barker in a podcast about this story.
May 17: This post has been updated.
The same IRS office that deliberately targeted conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status in the run-up to the 2012 election released nine pending confidential applications of conservative groups to ProPublica late last year.
The IRS did not respond to requests Monday following up about that release, and whether it had determined how the applications were sent to ProPublica.
In response to a request for the applications for 67 different nonprofits last November, the Cincinnati office of the IRS sent ProPublica applications or documentation for 31 groups. Nine of those applications had not yet been approved—meaning they were not supposed to be made public. (We made six of those public, after redacting their financial information, deeming that they were newsworthy.)
On Friday, Lois Lerner, the head of the division on tax-exempt organizations, apologized to Tea Party and other conservative groups because the IRS’ Cincinnati office had unfairly targeted them. Tea Party groups had complained in early 2012 that they were being sent overly intrusive questionnaires in response to their applications.
That scrutiny appears to have gone beyond Tea Party groups to applicants saying they wanted to educate the public to “make America a better place to live” or that criticized how the country was being run, according to a draft audit cited by many outlets. The full audit, by the Treasury Department’s inspector general for tax administration, will reportedly be released this week. (ProPublica was not contacted by the inspector general’s office.) (UPDATE May 14: The audit has been released.)
Before the 2012 election, ProPublica devoted months to showing how dozens of social-welfare nonprofits had misled the IRS about their political activity on their applications and tax returns. Social-welfare nonprofits are allowed to spend money to influence elections, as long as their primary purpose is improving social welfare. Unlike super PACs and regular political action committees, they do not have to identify their donors.
In 2012, nonprofits that didn’t have to report their donors poured an unprecedented $322 million into the election. Much of that money — 84 percent — came from conservative groups.
As part of its reporting, ProPublica regularly requested applications from the IRS’s Cincinnati office, which is responsible for reviewing applications from nonprofits.
Social welfare nonprofits are not required to apply to the IRS to operate. Many politically active new conservative groups apply anyway. Getting IRS approval can help with donations and help insulate groups from further scrutiny. Many politically active new liberal nonprofits have not applied.
Applications become public only after the IRS approves a group’s tax-exempt status.
On Nov. 15, 2012, ProPublica requested the applications of 67 nonprofits, all of which had spent money on the 2012 elections. (Because no social welfare groups with Tea Party in their names spent money on the election, ProPublica did not at that point request their applications. We had requested the Tea Party applications earlier, after the groups first complained about being singled out by the IRS. In response, the IRS said it could find no record of the tax-exempt status of those groups — typically how it responds to requests for unapproved applications.)
Just 13 days after ProPublica sent in its request, the IRS responded with the documents on 31 social welfare groups.
One of the applications the IRS released to ProPublica was from Crossroads GPS, the largest social-welfare nonprofit involved in the 2012 election. The group, started in part by GOP consultant Karl Rove, promised the IRS that any effort to influence elections would be “limited.” The group spent more than $70 million from anonymous donors in 2012.
Applications were sent to ProPublica from five other social welfare groups that had told the IRS that they wouldn’t spend money to sway elections. The other groups ended up spending more than $5 million related to the election, mainly to support Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Much of that money was spent by the Arizona group Americans for Responsible Leadership. The remaining four groups that told the IRS they wouldn’t engage in political spending were Freedom Path, Rightchange.com II, America Is Not Stupid and A Better America Now.
The IRS also sent ProPublica the applications of three small conservative groups that told the agency that they would spend some money on politics: Citizen Awareness Project, the YG Network and SecureAmericaNow.org. (No unapproved applications from liberal groups were sent to ProPublica.)
The IRS cover letter sent with the documents was from the Cincinnati office, and signed by Cindy Thomas, listed as the manager for Exempt Organizations Determinations, whom a biography for a Cincinnati Bar Association meeting in January says has worked for the IRS for 35 years. (Thomas often signed the cover letters of responses to ProPublica requests.) The cover letter listed an IRS employee named Sophia Brown as the person to contact for more information about the records. We tried to contact both Thomas and Brown today but were unable to reach them.
After receiving the unapproved applications, ProPublica tried to determine why they had been sent. In emails, IRS spokespeople said ProPublica shouldn’t have received them.
“It has come to our attention that you are in receipt of application materials of organizations that have not been recognized by the IRS as tax-exempt,” wrote one spokeswoman, Michelle Eldridge. She cited a law saying that publishing unauthorized returns or return information was a felony punishable by a fine of up to $5,000 and imprisonment of up to five years, or both.
In response, ProPublica’s then-general manager and now president, Richard Tofel, said, "ProPublica believes that the information we are publishing is not barred by the statute cited by the IRS, and it is clear to us that there is a strong First Amendment interest in its publication.”
ProPublica also redacted parts of the application to omit financial information.
Jonathan Collegio, a spokesman for Crossroads GPS, declined to comment today on whether he thought the IRS’s release of the group’s application could have been linked to recent news that the Cincinnati office was targeting conservative groups.
Last December, Collegio wrote in an email: “As far as we know, the Crossroads application is still pending, in which case it seems that either you obtained whatever document you have illegally, or that it has been approved.”
This year, the IRS appears to have changed the office that responds to requests for nonprofits’ applications. Previously, the IRS asked journalists to fax requests to a number with a 513 area code — which includes Cincinnati. ProPublica sent a request by fax on Feb. 5 to the Ohio area code. On March 13, that request was answered by David Fish, a director of Exempt Organizations Guidance, in Washington, D.C.
In early April, a ProPublica reporter’s request to the Ohio fax number bounced back. An IRS spokesman said at the time the number had changed “recently.” The new fax number begins with 202, the area code for Washington, D.C.
For more on the IRS and nonprofits active in politics, read our story on how the IRS's nonprofit division got so dysfunctional, Kim Barker's investigation, "How nonprofits spend millions on elections and call it public welfare", our Q&A on dark money, and our full coverage of the issue.
Update: Testifying before a House committee Friday, former acting IRS Commissioner Steven Miller said that the disclosure of unapproved applications of conservative nonprofits to ProPublica last year, as well as the separate disclosure of confidential documents of the National Organization for Marriage, was “inadvertent.” Miller also mentioned that there had been discipline in one of the cases because procedures had not been followed.
We followed up on the issue, and the IRS sent this statement:
“When these two issues were previously raised concerning the potential unauthorized disclosures of 501(c)(4) application information, we immediately referred these cases to TIGTA [Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration] for a comprehensive review. In both instances, TIGTA found these instances to be inadvertent and unintentional disclosures by the employees involved.”
The IRS did not respond to questions on who had been disciplined and how. TIGTA did not respond to requests for comment.