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IRS apologizes for targeting tea party. Should heads roll? (+video)

IRS apologizes that its bureaucrats trolled for groups with names that included 'patriot' and 'tea party' before last year’s election in order to take a closer look at their tax status. Tea party groups want workers fired.

By Staff writer / May 11, 2013

The Internal Revenue Service building in Washington. The agency has apologized for targeting tea party groups for special scrutiny of their tax status.

Susan Walsh/AP

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Four years after President Obama joked at a commencement speech about using the IRS, Nixon-style, to target those who cross his path, the IRS on Friday apologized for unfairly targeting some of  the White House’s most devoted thorns-in-the-side – local and national tea party and patriot groups – for scrutiny.

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After denying any such incidents ahead of last year’s election, IRS officials acknowledged and apologized Friday for letting it happen, in a Cincinnati field office. Workers there perused applications for “social welfare” designation, a tax-free status used by many super PACs because some political activity is allowed, targeting the words “patriot” and “tea party.”

Tea party activists – doubly miffed for being targeted and then having their complaints blown off by the press – are hardly mollified by the apology.

Calling it a textbook example of the very kind of government tyranny that tea party groups have been warning about, Republican lawmakers are demanding investigations into what Rep. Darrell Issa, (R) of California, called “unconscionable” behavior. Tea party groups want the workers in question to be fired.

Whether the ultimate fault comes down to shoddy work or political trickery is still unresolved. The IRS commissioner at the time, Douglas Shulman, was a Bush appointee, and the IRS, despite a past history of political meddling for the White House, is usually lauded for its independence.

Moreover, the bottom line of the investigation touched on a key political debate: Gauging whether so-called “social welfare” groups that apply for tax exempt status are in fact no more than political operations in disguise. 501(c)4 is the designation under which most political Super PACs operate.

In a prepared statement released late Friday, the IRS explained that employees were attempting to “centralize” a large number of applications. In the end, some 300 applications were pulled, about half with “patriot” or “tea party” associations. None were ultimately denied.

"While centralizing cases for consistency made sense, the way we initially centralized them did not," the statement said. "Mistakes were made initially, but they were in no way due to any political or partisan rationale. We fixed the situation last year and have made significant progress in moving the centralized cases through our system."

When tea party complaints were raised last year, the New York Times weighed in supporting the IRS, though the paper also said scrutiny should be focused on groups of all political stripes.

“Taxpayers should be encouraged by complaints from Tea Party chapters applying for nonprofit tax status at being asked by the Internal Revenue Service to prove they are 'social welfare' organizations and not the political activists they so obviously are,” the Times editorial page wrote.

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