WASHINGTON -- If reports of political targeting of conservatives by the Internal Revenue Service shocked the nation, they didnt seem that surprising to many other groups who experienced problems with the tax agency in the past.
Liberal groups such as Greenpeace and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals say they were targeted, too, by past administrations. The conservative group Judicial Watch says it was singled out for tax scrutiny during the Clinton administration because it supported impeachment.
Charges of politically motivated targeting by the IRS are notoriously difficult to prove or disprove. The older cases differ from the current scandal and the evidence of political attacks is circumstantial. But in interviews with McClatchy, leaders of these well-known activist groups assert they were targeted during Bush and Clinton administrations.
We have been targeted, said Jeff Kerr, chief counsel for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
Jeff Kerr, chief counsel for People for Ethical Treatment of Animals
PETA was audited by the IRS in 1990 and 1992, when George H.W. Bush was president, and then again from 2003 to 2005 during George W. Bushs presidency.
The IRS agents admitted to us it was politically motivated and was the result of pressure tactics, Kerr said of the 2003 audit that PETA blames on pressure from lawmakers acting on behalf of the meat and dairy industries.
One of the agents even said, You should be less controversial. The last time I looked that is what engaging in free speech activity is, said Kerr.
One agent he pointed to was Ron Prowler, who has since retired from the IRS after 37 years.
I dont recall ever saying that to anybody, Prowler said when reached in Florida. I recall the audit obviously, but I would have never said that to anybody, because thats not correct. . . . It was not politically motivated. It was based on what we call an information item.
Many audits are triggered by anonymous or direct information about a group or citizen, a so-called information item. The IRS also offers rewards to tipsters equal to about 10 percent of taxes owed.
Marcus Owens, who headed the IRS Exempt Organization division from 1990 to 2000, also disputed the notion of politically motivated audits.
Everyone who gets audited thinks theyre being targeted by the IRS, said Owens, now a private attorney. Im not aware, since the Nixon administration . . . of an audit triggered by partisan politics.
The conservative group Judicial Watch said the Clinton administration ordered the IRS to audit it, in part because of its efforts to have Bill Clinton impeached for lying about his affair with intern Monica Lewinsky.
It was expensive, exhausting and it was intimidating because they were asking questions about your politics and things like that, said Tom Fitton, the groups president then and now.
When Fitton asked why the 1997 audit was happening, he says he was told, What do you expect when you sue the president.
They wanted a lot of information about virtually all of our activities, audited us for seven years of returns. It was quite onerous what we had to go through, said Fitton.
He did not offer any proof of political motives behind the audit.