House Oversight memo: Washington Post’s tea party coverage inspired IRS to target conservatives

Patrick Howley Political Reporter
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The Washington Post’s anti-tea party coverage inspired IRS officials to improperly target conservative groups, according to a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee memo.

“The IRS first identified and elevated the Tea Party applications due to media attention surrounding the Tea Party…Media attention caused the IRS to treat conservative-oriented tax-exempt applications differently,” according to a September 17 House Oversight memo entitled “Interim update on the Committee’s investigation of the Internal Revenue Service’s inappropriate treatment of tax-exempt applications.”

While the memo acknowledged that President Obama’s and the White House’s anti-Citizens United, campaign finance reform-related rhetoric in early 2010 was not lost on IRS officials, the memo makes clear that the Washington Post’s heavy anti-tea party coverage directly inspired improper IRS targeting.

“When other Tea Party applications were discovered, the cases were classified as ‘sensitive’ due to media attention and two more were transferred to Washington to be processed,” according to the memo, which explains that in February 2010 a Cincinnati-based IRS screener alerted a tea party group’s tax-exempt application to his superior, who brought the concerns to the agency’s Washington office, because “Recent media attention to this type of organization indicates to me that this is a ‘high profile’ case.”

“As the application continued to be elevated, another IRS employee called the application a ‘potentially politically embarrassing case’ and also pointed out the ‘[r]ecent media attention to this type of organization.’ On this basis – ‘the potential for media attention’ – the Washington office accepted the case,” according to the memo.

Washington-based IRS officials were wary of the Washington Post, which was aggressively hammering away at the young tea party in early 2010 over “perceptions of racism” and other liberal complaints.

In the memo, congressional investigators emphasized the role that the Post’s coverage played in spawning anti-tea party sentiment.

“Washington Post columnists accused Tea Party groups of ‘smoldering with anger’ and practicing a brand of patriotism reminiscent of the Ku Klux Klan,” according to the memo. “Another Post columnist opined in late March 2010 that Tea Party rhetoric ‘is calibrated not to inform but to incite.'” The memo was referring to columns by Post op-ed columnists Colbert I. King and Eugene Robinson, the latter of which discussed the subject of Christian militia groups and lumped tea party rallies in with the terrorism work of Timothy McVeigh.

“The potential for media attention continued to be a concern for IRS officials once Washington received additional sample cases in late March 2010…  Around the same time that the Washington Post was running columns critical of the Tea Party, she [an IRS employee] added that ‘[t]he Tea Party movement is covered in the Post almost daily. I expect to see more applications,'” according to the memo.

“She [the IRS employee] also made special mention of the groups’ perceived political affiliation, commenting that the group’s activity ‘looks more educational but with a republican slant obviously,'” according to the memo.

Washington-based IRS acting manager of Exempt Organizations Technical Stephen Grodnitzky wrote an April 5, 2010 email asking for more tea party applications from the Cincinnati office.

“Really thinking about possible media attention on a particular case,” Grodnitzky wrote, ordering that the Washington IRS office draft a “sensitive case report” on tea party applications that have the potential for “media attention.”

“Certain media attention involved with those cases, which was the basis for the significant case report,” Washington-based IRS supervisory employee Ronald Shoemaker testified, according to the Oversight Committee. “I was aware of media attention, yes.”

The Washington Post did not immediately return a request for comment.

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