TIGTA response to Rep. Levin about scope of IRS exempt organization audit

The webs are on fire this morning with news of the TIGTA response to this Levin letter.  And (from an entirely unscientific sample) the vast majority of them have headlines along the lines of the one in The Hill: “Treasury IG: Liberal groups weren’t targeted by IRS like Tea Party.”

While technically correct, I think this is an odd way to present the information in the letter: inflammatory (and so I understand it), but potentially misleading.  The letter itself is here.  It says that the words “Tea Party” (and “9/12” and “Patriots”) were used as criteria to flag organizations as potential political cases, and trigged increased scrutiny.  Words like “Progressives” were not, although groups with “progress” or “progressive” in their names were included (presumably for other reasons).

To be clear, like many others, I think that screening based on the name (or espoused beliefs) of an organization is wrong, no matter what the ideological valence of the organization and no matter whether the screen effectively leads to non-c4 activity or not.  (To the point on effectiveness: the TIGTA letter also says that of the 296 reviews flagged as potential political cases, about 200 showed indications of significant political campaign intervention (which apparently should have triggered further screening under IRS regs); of (an unknown number of) samples not flagged as potential political cases, more than 175 showed indications of significant political campaign intervention, which apparently should have gotten them flagged.)

But the TIGTA letter doesn’t say anything about whether liberal or progressive groups were or weren’t targeted to the same extent that groups aligned with the Tea Party were targeted.  It says that the phrase “Tea Party” was used (improperly) as a criterion for targeting, and that the word “Progressives” was not.  The focus on political valence rather than particular words may be gold for the media, but it does not necessarily glitter.

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