Among the questions asked were whether the group, which won tax-exempt status last June, held candidate forums, the names and issues discussed and what material was provided to citizens.
“If you’re going to be asking for these exemptions you should expect scrutiny,” said Ed Espinoza, the group’s executive director. Asked whether he thought the process was politicized, he responded, “Not at all.”
His group wasn’t asked all the same questions that were asked of True the Vote, which has close ties to conservatives and, like Progress Texas, a mission to keep an eye out for voter irregularities. In February 2012, the IRS sought data on “all of your activity on Facebook and Twitter,” as well as detailed questions about whom the group recruits.
There are key differences. True the Vote is seeking a somewhat different kind of tax exemption. It aims to train 1 million poll workers nationwide and shares an office and founder with King Street Patriots, which has fought charges that it’s partisan. King Street Patriots is challenging in the Texas Court of Appeals the constitutionality of the Texas Democratic Party’s claims of partisan activity. Neither the patriots group nor True the Vote has received a tax exemption, and True the Vote has sued in federal court.
Most liberal or clearly nonpartisan organizations McClatchy contacted say they were subjected to scrutiny but accepted it as part of the process.
Wally, of the Clean Elections Texas group, filed applications for two kinds of requests for tax-exempt status in early 2010. One was approved in three months and required only that she fill out an application. The other took until August of that year and involved back-and-forth dialogue with IRS officials, which resulted in changes to the website.
She found the scrutiny justifiable. “We were asking for a privilege,” she said.
Some complained about crushing indifference from the IRS to their applications. Global Action to Prevent War, based in New York City, applied for tax-exempt status in late 2011. It waited more than nine months, and had trouble getting calls returned.
When the IRS finally responded, it sent a list of questions about how the group funds overseas workshops, and asked for a representative sample of its publications. The group got tax-exempt status in January.
Any argument that only conservatives got tough scrutiny, though, is countered somewhat by the saga of Emerge America. It always was upfront about its mission – to train Democratic women to run for office – but it says it doesn’t get involved directly in the election process.
Emerge America got tax exemptions for the national group and for affiliates in California, New Mexico and Arizona during the Bush administration. Groups routinely were asked about their brochures, websites and other material explaining Emerge America’s purpose.
“We knew we were in an interesting place,” since the group was obviously Democratic-leaning, group co-founder Dana Kennedy said.
She saw no political bias in her dealings with the IRS, but in 2011 “we started getting more and more questions.” Three new state applications were rejected, and the tax-exempt status of the other four organizations was revoked.
Holly Paz, who was then the acting IRS director for exempt organizations, rules and regulations, explained why in a letter: “You are not operated primarily to promote social welfare because your activities are conducted primarily for the benefit of a political party and a private group of individuals, rather than the community as a whole.”