IRS Disclosure Was Planted

From the moment of the initial disclosure of IRS targeting of conservative groups, observers have speculated about the timing and location of the disclosure. Could this really have been an unplanned, impromptu remark? No. In fact, the question was planted and Lois Lerner’s statement was pre-planned. As additional information trickles it out, it is also becoming clearer that the actions at issue were more widespread, and more widely known within the agency, than initially suggested. Lerner herself sent at least one letter to a Tea Party group seeking additional information, and many of her initial claims don’t stand up to scrutiny. It’s no wonder Lerner has yet to agree to testify before Congress (though I doubt she’ll have much choice in the matter for long).

UPDATE: Was the decision to target Tea Party groups an understandable (if unwise) response to a surge in applications for 501(c)(4) status? Not according to this report in The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

Top IRS officials have been saying that a “significant increase” in applications from advocacy groups seeking tax-exempt status spurred its Cincinnati office in 2010 to filter those requests by using such politically loaded phrases as “Tea Party,” “patriots,” and “9/12.” . . .

The scrutiny began, however, in March 2010, before an uptick could have been observed, according to data contained in the audit released Tuesday from the Treasury Department’s inspector general for tax administration. . . .

The audit says the IRS began to use “inappropriate criteria” to single out applications in March 2010. By April 2010, a “sensitive case report” was issued on “Tea Party cases,” indicating that managers in Cincinnati were aware of the sensitive nature of the reviews.

According to the audit, 1,735 groups applied for 501(c)(4) exemption for the federal fiscal year that ended September 30, 2010—six months after the IRS began its scrutiny. That was down slightly from 1,751 the prior year.

The number grew to 2,265 during the fiscal year that ended September 30, 2011, and to 3,357 in 2012. By then the criteria the IRS was using to flag groups had changed three times to include searches for groups with names that contained “Bill of Rights,” “educating on the constitution,” and “limiting/expanding government.”

Meanwhile, at Legal Ethics Forum, John Steele wonders “where were the lawyers?”

FURTHER UPDATE: The NYT reports that high-level administration officials knew about the potential targeting of conservative groups in 2012, months before the election.  See also this report from NBC’s Lisa Myers.