Wow! The IRS is paying attention?
Psyche printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Fri Feb 24, 2006 at 04:46:58 PM EST
According to an AP release: IRS: Charities Overstepping Into Politics it looks like the IRS has been paying some attention.
This seems to reflect a considerable investment of time and energy devoted to investigating complaints.

IRS exams found nearly three out of four churches, charities and other civic groups suspected of having violated restraints on political activity in the 2004 election actually did so, the agency said Friday.

Most of the examinations that have concluded found only a single, isolated incidence of prohibited campaign activity.

In three cases, however, the IRS uncovered violations egregious enough to recommend revoking the groups' tax-exempt status.

The vast majority of charities and churches followed the law, but the examinations found a "disturbing" amount of political intervention in the 2004 elections, IRS Commissioner Mark Everson said.

[ ]

The IRS examined 110 organizations referred to the tax agency for potentially violations, and 28 cases remain open.

Among the 82 closed cases, the IRS found prohibited politicking and sent a written warning to 55 organizations and assessed a penalty tax against one group. Those organizations included 37 churches and 19 other organizations.

In the three additional cases in which the IRS recommended revoking tax-exempt status, none of the organizations were churches. The agency did not identify the three.

[ ]

Among the prohibited activities, the examiners found that charities and churches had distributed printed material supporting a preferred candidate and assembled improper voter guides or candidate ratings.

Religious leaders had used the pulpit to endorse or oppose a particular candidate, and some groups had shown preferential treatment to candidates by letting them speak at functions.

Interesting comment at the end. Is this another example of civil servants doing their jobs but political appointees timing the release of information?

The tax agency set up a task force in 2004 to review allegations of improper political activity. The special procedures, revealed shortly before the election, drew criticism from some tax-exempt groups.

An audit by Treasury Department inspectors found nothing inappropriate in the examinations, but it faulted the IRS for creating the appearance of political motivations by waiting too long to announce the project and contact organizations.

The IRS said it plans to continue using the task force, and its speedier procedures, for this year's election and in the future. It also released detailed guidance to charities and churches about the prohibitions against political activities.

It would be even more interesting to find out what organizations were involved. Would that require a FOIA request? (Or maybe that information has been "classified").

Thought this information important since it gives us a valuable tool. Keep your eyes open for violations and report them!

you beat me to it;-)

The IRS is not required to publicly disclose its investigations. So, details may come out piecemeal, or perhaps someone will leak the report.

by Frederick Clarkson on Fri Feb 24, 2006 at 05:12:12 PM EST

I was about to post on this until I saw someone beat me to the punch :3

Anyways, as I'm also noting (on the post on this on Dark Christianity) this is relevant in many areas:

a) The specific patterns of abuse the IRS is finding.  Per its press release the patterns of abuse are as follows:

* Charities, including churches, distributing diverse printed materials that encouraged their members to vote for a particular candidate (24 alleged; 9 determined),
  • Religious leaders using the pulpit to endorse or oppose a particular candidate (19 alleged; 12 determined),
  • Charities, including churches, endorsing or opposing a candidate on their website or through links to another website (15 alleged; 7 determined),
  • Charities, including churches, disseminating voter guides or candidate ratings that encourage readers to vote for particular candidates (14 alleged; 4 determined),
  • Charities, including churches, placing signs on their property that show they support a particular candidate (12 alleged; 9 determined),
  • Charities, including churches, giving improper preferential treatment to certain candidates by permitting them to speak at functions (11 alleged; 9 determined), and
  • Charities, including churches, making cash contributions to a candidate's political campaign (7 alleged; 5 determined).

Right here, World Harvest Church and the Assemblies of God could be in serious trouble (the former is already being investigated for this sort of abuse--see more below--and the Assemblies donated $20,000 to John Ashcroft's re-election campaign in 2000).

Also, as this is a result of a government audit, the IRS has now stated enforcement in 2006 will be even more aggressive.

And there will probably be more groups losing tax exempt status or ending up on "double secret" probation on this--the IRS in its executive report has noticed the problem is getting pretty bad:

The second is the dramatic increase in the amount of money financing campaigns. The level of funds going into the campaign area from organizations regulated by the Federal Election Commission has increased significantly. For the 2003-2004 election cycle, the FEC reported that over $10 billion was spent, more than double the $4 billion spent during the 1999-2000 election cycle (the last election cycle that included a presidential election).

Similar dramatic increases were reported in the receipts and expenditures by section 527 political organizations reporting to the IRS. In the last six months of the 2004 election cycle, these organizations, which typically are involved in election-related issue advocacy not regulated under the stricter FEC rules, reported over $300 million in expenditures, more than double the $150 million in expenditures reported in the comparable period in the 2000 cycle.

Although charities are precluded from intervening in political campaigns, the IRS has seen a growth in the number and variety of allegations of such behavior by section 501(c)(3) organizations during election cycles. The increase in allegations, coupled with the dramatic increases in money spent during political campaigns, has raised concerns about whether prohibited funding and activity are emerging in section 501(c)(3) organizations.
If left unaddressed, the potential for charities, including churches, being used as arms of political campaigns and parties will erode the public's confidence in these institutions.

(In other words, politicking at your church is bad not just for your tax exempt status but bad for religion.)

The report continues:

Because of strong indications of increasing political activity in the tax exempt area, the IRS augmented its efforts in this area in 2004. The Service adopted a two-part approach. First, the IRS expanded its educational efforts to remind section 501(c)(3) organizations about the prohibition on political activities and the consequences of engaging in such activities. The Service conveyed this message through press releases, speeches, workshops, IRS Nationwide Tax Forums, and in a letter to national political parties. Second, the Service initiated the Political Activities Compliance Initiative to respond in a faster, targeted fashion to specific credible allegations of political campaign intervention.

As part of the initiative a "fast track" process was implemented for evaluating reports and allegations (referrals) of potential prohibited political activity by section 501(c)(3) organizations and for starting examinations, where appropriate. The fast track process enabled the IRS to meet the main objectives of the initiative--to intercede quickly in instances of alleged prohibited political activity, address allegations of noncompliance in a manner that was balanced and evenhanded, educate the exempt organizations, and prevent potential future violations of the law by those contacted.

In other words--partly because of the explosion in this sort of abuse--the IRS now has a fast-track investigation and enforcement capability to investigate, and if necessary, layeth-the-smacketh-down on potential offenders.

This becomes relevant because

b) There are a lot more watchdog groups willing to report abuse.

Formerly, Americans United was the one group that was the major "watchdog" in regards to this sort of electioneering, and The Interfaith Alliance would give warnings about the distribution of Christian Coalition guides in churches.

Now, Americans United (who issued their own press release regarding increased IRS enforcement) is also joined by DefCon America (who has an email reporting hotline for reporting illegal electioneering by churches or charitable groups) and even, as of late, by other churches.

Of particular note here is what I refer to affectionately as the "Ohio Rebellion" where thirty mainstream pastors filed a joint complaint with the IRS against dominionist World Harvest Church and Fairfield Christian Church in Ohio--and have since had others joining in the "Rebellion" by filing co-complaints with the IRS.

In other words, people are getting sick of this, and they're starting to fight back--and we may have an opprotune time to start filing complaints with the IRS in regards to dominionist groups.  (The vast majority of dominionist groups--the Christian Coalition and Traditional Values Coalition being very rare exceptions here--are registered as 501(c)3 groups, on which much of the focus is being brought.)

It would be extremely interesting to know which of the three 501(c)3 groups lost their tax exempt status.

The IRS is also being much more clear on what is allowed and what isn't (which makes it easier not only on churches and legit 501(c)3 groups but those of us who are watching them for violations); a new guide has just been released by the IRS on what is allowed and what isn't.

Another reason this is relevant:

c) Apparently quite a few of these groups are under "double secret probation" by the IRS.  

If a pattern of abuses shows up, it's more likely a group will lose its tax exempt status; many of the groups got warnings because of only one violation (such as distributing a Christian Coalition or AFA voter guide).  If multiple reports come in--or reports year after year of the same sort of misbehaviour--the IRS has evidence to show a pattern of misbehaviour making "laying the smack down" (including making them pay back taxes and/or revoking tax exempt status) more likely.

by dogemperor on Fri Feb 24, 2006 at 07:32:35 PM EST

I was particularly heartened to see that one of the links in the IRS press release that you cited was to an address given yesterday to the City Club of Cleveland by IRS Commissioner Everson. While much its content is well covered in your comment, the thing that excited me was that the City Club tends to pull the movers and shakers in town - a prime group to inform about this issue.

As you well know, we've had serious election problems with the World Harvest Church, the Fairfield Church, and Patriot Pastors in Ohio. They are strongly allied with Kenneth Blackwell, the born-again Secretary of State now running for Governor. Blackwell, who was co-chair of the Bush-Cheney campaign, was responsible, as SoS, for egregious voting irregularities in the last election.

As of now, the GOP is in tatters in Ohio: Governor Taft ranks next to the bottom in national rankings of Governors and was charged with ethics violations; a number of his aids are under investigation; Noe has been indicted on 53 counts in the Coingate scandal for criminal mismanagement of Workers Compensation funds; and Ney, a congressman from Ohio, is in the middle of the Abramoff scandal. One might think that progressive candidates would have a good chance to win in the state, especially since we have a strong candidate, Ted Strickland (full disclosure - I'm campaigning for him), running against Blackwell. Ted's ticket has strong appeal across the state because he represented a southern, rural area in Congress for many years and, before that, was a psychologist and ordained Methodist minister. His Lt. Governor candidate well represents the Northeast and the cities.

You might think we have it in the bag - and probably would if we could depend on honest elections. But the big fly in the ointment is the extremely well organized, powerful, and politically active Religious Right in Ohio. If the IRS does educate churches and others in the community and crack down on those who violate the rules, we may have a fighting chance. And if we can get some progressives into office, we can start to tackle other Religious Right nonsense. (The latest is a bill introduced to prevent adoption and foster parenting by gay couples. One liberal Ohio senator - a must read - was able to take it on with more humor than I can sometimes muster.)

by Psyche on Sat Feb 25, 2006 at 01:28:30 AM EST

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