Journalism in the Public Interest

IRS Office That Targeted Tea Party Also Disclosed Confidential Docs From Conservative Groups

The IRS’s Cincinnati office last year sent ProPublica the unapproved applications for several conservative groups.


President Barack Obama at a news conference Monday during which he addressed the IRS. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

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, 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 (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. 

Pro-publica?  Sounds pro something else to me

Riccardo Cabeza

May 13, 2013, 6:25 p.m.

Another Bush appointee screw up.

Time to impeach Obama.  If his lips are moving - Obama is lying.

Riccardo tries the “Bush appointee screwup” road.  Riccardo, unlike Obama or Bill Clinton, George Bush actually appointed LIBERALS to important jobs.  Bush’s IRS appointee you want to blame donated to Obama and is a registered Democrat.

Interesting… IRS leaked documents to an organization led by Obama mentor Dr. Henry Louis Gates of Beer Summit fame.

Sounds like someone needs to investigate ProPublica and their motivation.  Where are the progressive/liberal/democrat social welfare groups they have looked at?  Where are the George Soros social welfare groups they have looked at?  Where are the Obama organization social welfare groups they have looked at?

Is Pro-Publica a social welfare group?

Why are they only looking at republican or conservative groups?

Dr. Henry Louis Gates is a progressive democrat.

Another Leftist organization - non-profit? - research focused upon conservative groups and not Leftist groups. How typical. 

Something stinks to high Heaven on this story and the IRS apology that was meant to be quiet and under the rug.

Hmm, the fax number was changed from Ohio to Washington DC, nothing alarming about that is there? Just like census forms were returned to Washington DC, right to the WH, anyone remember the census? That was when Obama kept hiring and firing census workers, some three times, but his Dept of Labor kept counting it as 3 new jobs and that fudged the unemployment figures. Which by the way are still nothing but smoke and mirrors since the Government no longer counts people who have given up looking, and when the available pool “appears” to be shrinking, that makes the unemployment picture look *rosier*. Except they then can’t explain why the first Food Stamp President now has over 50 million receiving Food Stamps, but Carney the Carney doesn’t think that’s fair to tell the truth. Or to mention that more people than ever were put on disability under Obama, one for having high blood pressure and another for dandruff.
  Your taxes are paying are paying for all these Food Stamp recipients and funny how they are being traded for alcohol and drugs, but that goes with the territory.

And you’re just posting about this now because…. ?

Burn the Witch

May 13, 2013, 8:18 p.m.

ProPublica - Journalism in the Left’s Interest

Conservative Group? Surely you jest… Bwhahahahhah

So propublica knew months ago that the irs had violated the law and the privacy of applicants. For some reason that little fact wasnt newsworthy?

Great point Israel.
This is good stuff, but why did it take this long to post it? Shouldn’t this have been posted a while ago

It’s clear to me that this is only being published now to control the damage to ProPublica’s reputation. 

You were happy to be getting this inside information when you could convince yourselves that it was simply a fortunate “leak” and pretend there were no ulterior motives. 

But now it appears more that you are in league with, or at least share a common political allegiance with, those within the IRS who were using their power in an attempt to damage those whose views they disagreed with.  From the IRS’s perspective, it’s the worst kind of abuse of power; for ProPublica’s perspective it is a dereliction of the integrity you’ve professed.

You wrote…....... GOP consultant Karl Rove, promised the IRS that any effort to influence elections would be “limited.”....Promised??  really? he “promised”?  did he cross his heart and hope to die?  Jour. 101 folks…if you print that kind of slant please “bring your lunch” for the true dicussion…is it your object to inform or influence.. please decide if you are editorial writers or reporting news…read what you wrote and read it objectively… you will surely find the other instances your objective readers did…or please post OP/ED on your next homework assignment…..  very poor JOURNALISM if this was NEWS REPORTING…VERY POOR indeed.
Please consider that you hide behind your “press credentials”  as those you write of, hide behind their “tax exempt” status. You report the “story” but your intent is thinly veiled.  and to you editor that approved this….Did you consider ethics as an bench mark in calling yoursef “Pro Pub.?  really?

And Media Matters’ applications and documents were also looked at right?

“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” but we’re just talking about it now in a feeble attempt to try to look like we want to do the right thing and avoid being caught in the scandal.

Too late.

As far as I know, many of the requests by conservative groups for tax exempt status have yet to be approved, some after 3 years of trying.

Should the government be forced to automatically grant them that status and also be forced to compensate donors and groups the money that would have been saved? Is seeking justice against the government legal these days?

Contrary to a number of the comments here, but as indicated in the article, ProPublica DID publish, in December and again in January, the fact that applications had been sent to us when they should not have been, and that both the IRS itself and some of the groups involved asserted that this disclosure had been illegal.
In addition, while the unapproved applications sent to us were only for conservative groups, our requests—as our reporting on this subject repeatedly indicates—have been for applications from groups across the political spectrum. 
With respect to David Rogers’ point about Crossroads’ “promise”, the document in question was signed under penalty of perjury.

Aw, it’s so cute how a bunch of people show up for one article without context and fill in the entire history without, say, reading.  Or understanding the relevant laws, for that matter.  Just react.  It’s only the Internet…

As Mr. Tofel points out, this was all reported, several times and in surprising detail; your not having read the previous articles doesn’t mean they weren’t published.  This half-witted scandal has been brewing for a while, and I’d bet that the IRS has been investigating precisely the organizations on which ProPublica received documents.

The conclusion I draw from the reports is that either the IRS has been investigating these organizations in a CYA move over the document leakage (to prove that they’re not letting groups slip through the cracks) or ProPublica was used as an outlet to give them reason to pursue the organizations.

But feel free to presume some vast conspiracy between the media and Washington.  That sort of smokescreen is exactly the sort of thing Washington likes to see when they seize AP phone records without a warrant.

So the IRS illegally targeted Conservative political groups for extra intrusive scrutiny and the applications were illegally sent to Pro Publica who printed the details. Good thing the IRS will collect and database our health spending details soon. What could possibly go wrong?

“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.”
Of course, the data sample, from the IRS, only inlcuded conservative groups.  Throw in OFA and see what happens to the numbers.  But then OFA is a ‘good’ group, one approved by progressive interests, and backed by the fine Mr. Soros, who has been in the forfront of such progressive interests as turning Jews over to the Nazis and attempting to break the Bank of England.

Mr. Tofel..  in response to your reply..”.With respect to David Rogers’ point about Crossroads’ “promise”, the document in question was signed under penalty of perjury”  ....... yes Mr. Tofel it was.. and this article, in the manner it was written would lead you to believe it was “promised” by .... gasp… Karl Rove, by your phrasing and manner in which his name was inserted, when in fact was signed by Margee Clancy,Treas. ......and that document clearly stated(noted in your research article also)  50 percent would be used on PUBLIC EDUCATION on national policy etc.  and continues to note that this will be through among others “paid advertising” ..20 percent on Research” determine how various demograhic groups respond to current national policy issues”    and surprise!!!!!  30 percent…. read that again 30 percent ACTIVITY TO INFLUENCE LEGISLATIVE AND POLICY MAKING….. very straight forward…..  they are going so find the hot buttons that stir up the demographics they are looking for, advertise to them and lobby Legislatures by pushing their agenda… any surprise there?.... then you state ....“The group spent more than $70 million from anonymous donors in 2012.”  so? what does that mean, they got the money legally and spent it…  what did they spend that 70 mil on and did you find anything wrong( I think not as you would have gleefully reported)?  ....  50/30 or 20 percent? know this group buy ads you know they do polls to support their agenda,  you know they lobby…. you don’t like them…neither do I….quit grinding your axe   with vague veiled shadowy “news"writing casting half truths as if fact.  If you don’t like how they spent the 70 mil… tells us what they did wrong… as the IRS who targeted them has pursued the variations in their budget expeditures.  I don’t care if you are dead set against king Karl…I can’t stand him either… but don’t do a disservice to your professional by wandering into half truths and calling it journalism.  Write an OP/ED or write news. If you like I would be glad to discuss the other deficiencies in your news (op/ed) article but it seems that supporting your viewpoint rather than providing news is the order of the day.

Well most of the 527C money WAS on the Conservative side.

Liberals tended more to Unions, SuperPACs and other methods for funneling their money.

It’s like saying 95%+ of the hundreds of millino unions funneled into the election campaigning was supporting the Democrats.  Technically true (the best kind of true for a “Journalist”), but leaving out significant pieces on how the other side worked the system through other methods.

So this is an article about how this site received confiential items from one of it’s sources, that source happening to be the IRS?  Are you kidding me?  Why didn’t you print this story back when you guys were witch hunting Karl Rove?

Do you people have any integrity at all?

The truth is out, IRS employees were illegally furnishing Propublicia information on conservative groups.  Propublicia appears to have used the information to attack 31 Conservative groups to challenge their Tax Exempt status during the 2008 Campaign.  Hopefully, everyone involved will get jail time.

Your organization should be investigated into how you obtained supposedly private, confidential information via IRS regulations for articles you wrote about Tea Party organizations in the past. In fact, you should all be considered for serious jail time.

Propublica, since you are funded by George Soros and you are a left wing operation, I find it interesting that you would bother get in front of this issue, ESPECIALLY SINCE YOU HAD TO KNOW THAT THE INFORMATION YOU ASKED FOR AND WERE GIVEN, WAS ILLEGAL. I am a member of one of these groups. I will be joining my fellow members in suing the IRS and Propublica. It is not your business to define what a non profit is by definition, when you are a non profit who spews leftist talking points. As with all Government Media Complex, you are pathetic.

Charles Patterson

May 14, 2013, 2:32 p.m.

No more Beer Garden Party for you, Skip!

And none for the rest of the you Publicans, either.  Did anyone else chez vous just hear the alarming SNAP of the latex glove?  Get ready!

I wonder why in full disclosure, you didn’t release your own tax information AND that of your donors…you are left leaning, if not straight up regressive, I mean, Progressive…..HYPOCRITES.


May 14, 2013, 2:37 p.m.


Isn’t it time that we vote out ALL incumbents (regardless of party affiliation) and start new with people that haven’t gotten wealthy by being career-politicians?  We are in complete control of these people, but for whatever reason, we keep voting that same dumb bastards into office.  Time to wake up people.

Can’t wait to see you folks under oath in front of a congressional committee. Talk about a government at war with it’s citizens. Some of you might wind up in jail.

This is brilliant writing guys!  Please just listen to yourselves and realize how corruption sounds.  I realize this is the world of current politics but, really?

So which one of you propublica hacks gets the 5 years imprisonment?

Now that this story has surfaced, Pro Publica is trying claim it was watching out for the taxpayers.  The real intent of the IRS has now become clear. The IRS has now started to spread information to seek political advantage by using political/media organizations to do its bidding.  So, the IRS uses private information and gives it to political groups such as Pro Publica for financial ammo for oppositional information to destroy donors, support groups individuals and voters that do not share their values

Mr. Tofel,

All your self serving rationalizations show is what a bunch of tools your group is.  You were used and the worst part is you don’t even care.


May 14, 2013, 3:03 p.m.

Mr. Tofel claims that Pro Publica has been asking for information about groups on both sides of the aisle.

Does anyone here really believe him?

Barbara Adolphson

May 14, 2013, 3:07 p.m.

Propublica is nothing more than an extension of the democrats and the Obama administration, funded by Nazi enabler George Soros and Herb and Marian Sandler who made their millions in the sub-prime mortgage debacle. The taxpayers picked up the tab to bail out Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and the Sandlers laughed all the way to the bank. Sounds to me like Propublica is the one who should have their tax exempt status investigated. Everyone at Republica should be prosecuted and jailed. You people are corrupt to the core, morally bankrupt and anti-American. Let’s hear it for the Constitution, people. God bless America and may He bring down these communists who are dead set on destroying this country. And yes, I am a Christian and a patriot who has watched, in dismay, the downward spiral this country has taken. I remember a time, when I was young, when mutual respect, faith and civility was the norm.


May 14, 2013, 3:07 p.m.

P.S. Richard Tofel is a registered Democrat. Does anyone here really think he’s directing his reporters to ask for IRS releases from both sides? Or that if they got them from Dem groups they’d report them?

Just wait until the IRS is running health care.. and what if its a Republican POTU? Getting through your thick skull yet?


May 14, 2013, 3:16 p.m.

ProPublica has some of the finest investigative reporters in the business on its staff.  One way of contradicting insinuations about lack of objectivity would be to investigate Benghazi.  Where is your investigation of Benghazi? Where was your coverage of it during the election cycle?

Disclosing confidential documents in the IRS is an immediate firing offense, as in the guard comes to your desk and walks you out the door.

If that wasn’t done here then the story gets even worse.

Whenever a news organization reports information that pertains to only one side of a political story, they risk being accused of advancing a biased message consistent with one political party’s deliberately crafted agenda. Why not wait until a more balanced story could be written that was able to describe applications from both sides of the political spectrum? ProPublica appears to have made the same mistake news outlets have made in the past, rushing to share “hot” news, and unfortunately finding themselves trying to extricate themselves from the story.

oh what a shock this is, Get a clue all you cry babies!!!!! it has been going on for YEARS!!!!!!!! yes, even the Bush admistration did it, just ask the ACLU, like them or hate them, they were targeted as well, didnt notice all the tea partier, holyer than thou,  crying about that. Personally I would like ALL the pacts investigated, but that would anger the crooks on the Supreme Court, that made this mess possible!!!!!!

Alan Charles Kors

May 14, 2013, 3:47 p.m.

Better late than never, yes, but given that partisan IRS investigations chillingly threaten the very core of our democracy and the public good, how conceivably did you not report this at the moment it occurred?

When Paul Steiger ran away from Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal to protest his politics it sent the message he was receptive to another political position.  Herb and Marian Sandler’s money bought silence instead straight reporting.  The corruption of Pro Publica is now there to observe.

I agree with DSK.  This kind of stuff has no doubt happened on both sides.  Get a grip right wingers…

I support Pro Publica - keep up the good work!

Wow, I have been patiently waiting for the IRS story to come out. You were used and you guys must have been jumping around the office with glee to publish what the IRS deliberately handed over to you. Pro you can’t talk yourself out of this bag. I commented then you were doing biased reporting and guilty are guilty. Seems to me the real story was why did the IRS turn over conservative groups confidential information.

What you might consider is the ton of money that groups such as La Raza and others has been dished out on the up and up.

Obama it is said keeps a record of his enemies and I suppose the IRS aided his desire for revenge. You were used and its shameful that you were clearly pleased to help.

This is the scariest story since Watergate

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