Federal authorities have opened a criminal investigation of whether employees broke the law when they targeted conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status, the reports.
The investigation follows a (54 pages, PDF) issued by the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration that detailed the use of "inappropriate criteria" by the IRS' exempt organizations office in its assessments of applications for tax exemption. The report found that a unit in Cincinnati created a "lookout" list for organizations with key words including "tea party," "patriot," and "9/12" in their names. IRS officials told the inspector general that they had used the keywords as shorthand to efficiently manage a deluge of applications from newly created advocacy groups, but that explanation was rejected by the watchdog agency, which also noted that the list was established before the decision in the Citizens United case.
The criteria were applied to nearly 300 organizations, of which 108 were approved for tax exemption, 28 withdrew their applications, and 160 remain open — including some that have been outstanding for almost three years. According to the Post, IRS officials and the IG's office have told congressional aides that senior officials, including acting IRS commissioner Steven T. Miller, a career IRS employee, and former commissioner Douglas Shulman, who was appointed by President George W. Bush, were briefed on the actions after the targeting occurred.
While a range of administrative actions could be taken against IRS employees for their conduct, prosecuting them for criminal actions would likely require proof that they intentionally violated the law, David H. Laufman, a former Justice Department lawyer, told the Post. "Willfulness would not exist where [IRS employees] believed they were acting in good faith or they were negligent in some respect," Laufman said. "For there to be a criminal violation, there will have to be evidence beyond a reasonable doubt that someone at the IRS knowingly and willfully violated the law."