By Kim Barker and Justin Elliott, ProPublica
The same IRS office that deliberately targeted conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status in the run-up to the 2012 election released nine pending confidential applications of conservative groups to ProPublica late last year.
The IRS did not respond to requests Monday following up about that release, and whether it had determined how the applications were sent to ProPublica.
In response to a request for the applications for 67 different nonprofits last November, the Cincinnati office of the IRS sent ProPublica applications or documentation for 31 groups. Nine of those applications had not yet been approved—meaning they were not supposed to be made public. (We made six of those public, after redacting their financial information, deeming that they were newsworthy.)
On Friday, Lois Lerner, the head of the division on tax-exempt organizations, apologized to Tea Party and other conservative groups because the IRS' Cincinnati office had unfairly targeted them. Tea Party groups had complained in early 2012 that they were being sent overly intrusive questionnaires in response to their applications.
That scrutiny appears to have gone beyond Tea Party groups to applicants saying they wanted to educate the public to "make America a better place to live" or that criticized how the country was being run, according to a draft audit cited by many outlets. The full audit, by the Treasury Department's inspector general for tax administration, will reportedly be released this week. (ProPublica was not contacted by the inspector general's office.) (UPDATE May 14: The audit has been released.)
Before the 2012 election, ProPublica devoted months to showing how dozens of social-welfare nonprofits had misled the IRS about their political activity on their applications and tax returns. Social-welfare nonprofits are allowed to spend money to influence elections, as long as their primary purpose is improving social welfare. Unlike super PACs and regular political action committees, they do not have to identify their donors.
In 2012, nonprofits that didn't have to report their donors poured an unprecedented $322 million into the election. Much of that money — 84 percent — came from conservative groups.
As part of its reporting, ProPublica regularly requested applications from the IRS's Cincinnati office, which is responsible for reviewing applications from nonprofits.
Social welfare nonprofits are not required to apply to the IRS to operate. Many politically active new conservative groups apply anyway. Getting IRS approval can help with donations and help insulate groups from further scrutiny. Many politically active new liberal nonprofits have not applied.
Applications become public only after the IRS approves a group's tax-exempt status.