Activist groups: IRS reviewed us under previous presidents

Published: Tuesday, Jun. 18, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 7A
Last Modified: Tuesday, Jun. 18, 2013 - 8:02 am

WASHINGTON – If reports of political targeting of conservatives by the Internal Revenue Service shocked the nation, they didn't 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.

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. Bush's 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 who were 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 don't 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 that's 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 they're being targeted by the IRS," said Owens, who is now a private attorney. "I'm 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 group's 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."

He did not offer any proof of political motives behind the audit.

The IRS probed the environmentalist group Greenpeace in 2003, apparently looking to see if it commingled funds from two different tax-exempt organizations it runs. Greenpeace says the allegation of commingling came from Public Interest Watch, a group the Wall Street Journal three years later discovered was funded almost entirely by oil giant ExxonMobil.

During the audit, said Mark Floegel, a senior investigator for the environmental group, an IRS agent looked at a Greenpeace photo of an activist chained to an Exxon gas pump and said, 'That's not going to happen anymore.' That was particularly chilling for us."

He added, "Circumstantially on the face of it, it is a pretty damning case. But we never got the explanation from the IRS, other than our books were in order."

Code Pink, a peace and social activism group that actively opposed the Iraq War and urged the impeachment of George W. Bush, also said it was audited on political grounds.

Its parent – Environmentalism Through Inspiration & Non Violent Action – was audited by the IRS in 2008.

Code Pink co-founder Jodie Evans said her auditor later told her the audit was politically motivated.

"He's since contacted me and said it was, but I am not going to out the auditor," said Evans. The auditor would not talk to McClatchy.

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