IRS Chief Says Poltical Flagging Was Broad as the Left Cheers Supposed End of Scandal – But Is There More to This Story?

The Internal Revenue Service’s practice of flagging groups applying for tax-exempt status included more than just conservative organizations, the Associated Press reports.

“[B]esides ‘tea party,’ lists used by screeners to pick groups for close examination also included the terms ‘Israel,’ ‘Progressive’ and ‘Occupy,’” the report notes.

“The document said an investigation into why specific terms were included was still underway,” it adds.

Without missing a beat, the usual suspects jumped at the chance to declare the scandal involving the IRS’ harassment of conservative groups over. After all, if the federal agency flagged both conservative and progressive groups, then what’s the big deal?

“[O]h look, IRS also used ‘progressive’ and ‘occupy’ to target non-profit groups,” Media Matters’ Eric Boehlert tweeted, adding “worst. ‘scandal.’ [E]ver.”

“The IRS scandal deflated,” the Huffington Post’s Sam Stein noted as he tweeted out his version of the AP report.

But even if the IRS included progressive groups on its infamous “be on the lookout” (BOLO) list, there’s still a distinction that needs to be made between flagging and harassing. Furthermore, there are way too many loose ends that need to be tied up before we can say the IRS scandal is “deflated.”

First, let’s pretend that the IRS treated all flagged groups the same. Why did agency officials wait until now to tell us this?

Lois Lerner, one of the chief IRS officials at the center of the scandal, made a scene in May when she went before Congress and invoked her Fight Amendment right to remain silent. If the IRS treated all politically-active groups the same, then why didn’t Lerner simply say, “Hey, we’re equal opportunity scrutinizers?”

True, the Treasury inspector general’s silence on the issue is strange, but Lerner’s (as well as ex-IRS chief Steve Miller’s) silence is even more puzzling. Wouldn’t you immediately point out that the IRS flagged all political groups so as to remove the idea that the agency unfairly targeted and harassed only conservative groups?

Why wait until now?

Second, although the Associated Press references plenty of heavily-redacted documents leaked by Congressional Democrats, there is nothing in the report to support the idea that progressive groups were treated the same as conservative groups. That is, there’s nothing indicating that left-leaning groups were harassed as the IRS admits it harassed conservative groups.

“A November 2010 version of the [BOLO] list … suggests that while the list did contain the word ‘progressive,’” National Review Online’s Eliana Johnson writes, “screeners were in fact instructed to treat ‘progressive’ groups differently from ‘tea party’ groups.”

“Whereas screeners were merely alerted that a designation of 501(c)(3) status ‘may not be appropriate’ for applications containing the word ‘progressive’ – 501(c)(3) organizations are prohibited from conducting any political activities – they were told to send those of tea-party groups off IRS higher-ups for further scrutiny,” she adds.

In short, progressive groups could be approved immediately by IRS agents while the flagged conservative groups would be sent to the higher-ups for additional scrutiny.

Johnson continues, adding that “the November 2010 [BOLO] list noted that tea-party cases were ‘currently being coordinated with [Exempt Organizations Technical], a group of tax lawyers in Washington, D.C.” and that applications of “progressive groups were not.”

In short, there “is no indication … that progressive groups were singled out for heightened scrutiny in a manner similar to tea-party groups,” Johnson writes.

Third, if the IRS systematically targeted and harassed progressive groups, where are they? Why hasn’t a single group come forward yet?

Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that “the documents in question do not actually say they were systematically targeted,” David Freddoso writes for the Conservative Intelligence Briefing, adding that the “kinds of groups discussed in these documents are of a totally different nature than the Tea Party groups targeted in the recent scandal.”

“The 14 new IRS documents do mention the term ‘progressive,’ but only in describing applications for the coveted 501 c(3) status, which confers tax deductibility on donations,” he notes. “The documents where the term ‘progressive’ appears (or wasn’t redacted) instruct agents that c(3) status is not appropriate for groups that conduct overtly political activity.”

“Unlike 501 c(4) groups — nearly all of those involved in the Tea Party targeting scandal — 501 c(3) groups are not permitted to engage in political advocacy at all,” Freddoso adds.

He continues:

The new IRS documents are watch lists, and they more or less all resemble the one at this link, though there are important changes over time. For example, by February 2012, the “Tea Party” entry that appears in earlier memos is replaced with more politically neutral phrasing about “political action type organizations involved in limiting/expanding government, educating on the constitution and bill of rights, social economic reform/movement.”

Freddoso ends with this important point:

there were three liberal groups that got the third degree — one of which admittedly “works only with women who are in the Democratic Party” (kind of a no-brainer) and another of which had a name  (“Clean Elections Texas”) that might have resembled that of a conservative group combating voter fraud. But one swallow does not a spring make. Given the systematic nature of the Tea Party targeting, it’s going to have to be a little more serious and widespread than that to debunk what the bureaucrats clearly and admittedly did to Tea Party groups.

BOTTOM LINE: Despite the wishful thinking of people like the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent, there is nothing in the AP report indicating that conservative groups were given the same treatment as progressive groups. All we know if that some progressive groups were flagged.

Also, there’s nothing to disprove the IRS’ own claim that it improperly targeted conservative groups. Remember, this whole thing was kicked off by Lerner herself admitting to improper targeting.

The revelation that progressive groups were included on the agency’s BOLO list doesn’t really change that.

Click here to read Freddoso’s full report.

Follow Becket Adams (@BecketAdams) on Twitter

Featured image Getty Images.

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