WASHINGTON — The Internal Revenue Service’s special scrutiny of small-government groups applying for tax-exempt status went beyond keyword hunts for organizations with “Tea Party” or “Patriot” in their names, to a more overtly ideological search for applicants seeking to “make America a better place to live” or “criticize how the country is being run,” according to part of a draft audit by the inspector general that has been given to Capitol Hill.
The head of the division on tax-exempt organizations, Lois Lerner, was briefed on the effort in June 2011, seemingly contradicting her assertion on Friday that she learned of the effort from the news reports. But the audit shows that she seemed to work hard to rein in the focus on conservatives and change it to a look at any political advocacy group of any stripe seeking tax exemptions.
The new information will only add to the criticism that has emerged since Lerner apologized to Tea Party and other conservative groups on Friday for unwarranted scrutiny. The full audit by the Treasury Department’s inspector general for tax administration is set to be released this week.
House Republicans have vowed to begin their own hearings and investigations. And Republicans fanned out on the political talk shows on Sunday to express outrage that is only likely to grow.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine and a prominent moderate, said on CNN that the singling out of conservative groups was “absolutely chilling.”
Since last year’s elections, Republicans in Congress have struggled for traction on their legislative efforts, torn between conservatives who drove the agenda after their 2010 landslide and new voices counseling a shift in course to reflect President Barack Obama’s re-election and the loss of Republican seats in the House and the Senate.
For the first time since 2011, Democrats have been dictating Washington’s political agenda, including tax increases on the rich, gun control and an overhaul of immigration laws.
But the accusations of IRS abuse are sure to fuel an effort that appears to be uniting dispirited Republicans and their conservative political base: investigating Obama and his administration. Republicans are pushing a portrayal of an administration overreaching its authority and punishing its enemies.
“The bottom line is they used keywords to go after conservatives,” Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said Sunday on the NBC News program “Meet the Press.” He requested the inspector general’s audit along with another Republican, Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio. As an audit, it will not find blame or refer anyone for criminal prosecution.