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Fact Check: No, New IG Report Doesn't Prove IRS Targeting Scandal Was a Right-Wing 'Myth'

News arrived last week that the US Department of Justice had reached a settlement with more than three dozen Tea Party and conservative groups improperly targeted by the Internal Revenue Service during the Obama administration.  As part of the agreement, the IRS offered a "sincere apology" for its abuses, harkening back to the era in which "IRS officials for mistreat[ed] conservative organizations who sought tax-exempt status...and IRS officials covered up the misconduct and misled Congress."  From Reuters' October 26th story:

The US Justice Department has reached a settlement with dozens of conservative groups that claimed the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) unfairly scrutinized them based on their political leanings when they sought a tax-exempt status, court documents showed. In a pair of lawsuits filed in federal court in 2013, the conservative groups accused the IRS of targeting organizations with such words as "Tea Party" or "patriots" when they applied to the agency for tax-exempt status starting in 2010. The sides asked the United States District Court for the District of Columbia on Wednesday to issue a declarative judgment in one of the cases involving 41 plaintiffs that would say the IRS was wrong to apply the United States tax laws based on an entity's name, position or association with a particular political movement...The IRS admitted it was wrong when it based screenings of the groups' applications on their names or policy positions, subjected the groups to heightened scrutiny, and delays and demanded unnecessary information from the groups, the agreement in the Washington case said.  The IRS "expresses its sincere apology," it said. 

Here is the Attorney General's statement on the matter, including a crucial line asserting that the evidence makes clear how that the IRS' targeting criteria "disproportionately impacted conservative groups:"

As this development in the IRS scandal became public, liberals on social media circulated misleading analyses of an Inspector General (TIGTA) report released at the end of September, which lefty media outlets have hyped as a decisive 'debunking' of the whole story.  One widely-shared piece in this vein was a Mother Jones column declaring that the new information exposes the anti-Tea Party targeting affair as a complete myth -- and that, in fact, progressive groups were the true victims:

It turns out that the 2013 audit was based on incomplete information because the IRS didn’t maintain case listings for most of the BOLO criteria. So TIGTA conducted a second audit...what did TIGTA find? Of these 146 cases which met the BOLO criteria based on words in the organization’s name, a grand total of ten were tea-party groups...In total, TIGTA identified 111 left-wing groups and 19 right-wing groups. (It’s unclear how the “healthcare” category broke out between left and right.) ...Of [the cases referred for further investigation], only 15 percent were conservative groups. That’s it. The vast majority were liberal groups...There was nothing to any of this. There was never anything to it. Just a couple of PowerPoint presentations that were blown up into a “scandal” that never existed. But it took four years to officially confirm that.

Here is the chart Mother Jones relies on to make this point:


Whether accidental or deliberate, this is misinformation.  The latest TIGTA report is a supplemental document that does not deny or dispute the accepted and established premise that conservative groups were unequally targeted.  In fact, it quotes extensively from a 2015 bipartisan Senate report, as well as a previous internal IRS review:

[The Senate report] found that “...from 2010 to 2013, IRS management was delinquent in its responsibility to provide effective control, guidance, and direction over the processing of applications for tax-exempt status filed by Tea Party and other political advocacy organizations.” It concluded that “Not only did those organizations have to withstand delays measured in years, but many also were forced to bear a withering barrage of burdensome and inappropriate “development letters” aimed at extracting information the IRS wrongly concluded was necessary to properly process the applications.” The Committee also found that: While most of the potentially political applications that the IRS set aside for heightened scrutiny were Tea Party and conservative groups, the IRS also flagged some left-leaning tax-exempt applicants for processing...Conclusions reached by the IRS were similar to the results of the Senate Committee on Finance investigation discussed above. Specifically, the IRS concluded that: Of the 84 (c)(3) cases,8 slightly over half appear to be conservative-leaning groups based solely on the name. The remainder do not obviously lean to either side of the political spectrum. Of the 199 (c)(4) cases,9 approximately 3/4 appear to be conservative leaning, while fewer than 10 appear to be liberal/progressive- leaning groups based solely on the name.

GOP investigators' addendum to that document stated, "the Majority report asserts that there was no political bias in the way the IRS selected groups for additional scrutiny and that conservative and liberal groups were treated equally. This is simply untrue. The IRS screening resulted in a clearly disparate impact on conservative group applications. Of the groups applying for tax-exempt status that were pulled from normal processing and received additional scrutiny by the IRS, 83% (or 248 out of 298) of the groups were “right leaning” organizations."  Relatedly, please recall this data from 2013, reported here by NPR and here by yours truly, that demonstrated how dramatically conservative-leaning groups were discriminated against -- both in sheer numbers, and in terms of the onerousness of the process:

According to IRS-furnished numbers, right-wing groups were far less likely to get approved for tax-exempt status than left-wing groups (46 percent vs. 100 percent), and were subjected to much more burdensome (and occasionally outrageously invasive) scrutiny. Conservative groups were also forced to wait much, much longer for official determinations than their liberal counterparts. Here's USA Today in 2013:

In February 2010, the Champaign Tea Party in Illinois received approval of its tax-exempt status from the IRS in 90 days, no questions asked. That was the month before the Internal Revenue Service started singling out Tea Party groups for special treatment. There wouldn't be another Tea Party application approved for 27 months. In that time, the IRS approved perhaps dozens of applications from similar liberal and progressive groups, a USA TODAY review of IRS data shows. As applications from conservative groups sat in limbo, groups with liberal-sounding names had their applications approved in as little as nine months. With names including words like "Progress" or "Progressive," the liberal groups applied for the same tax status and were engaged in the same kinds of activities as the conservative groups.

You may notice that the stats upon which Mother Jones relies to concoct their fiction include 'Be On The Lookout' (BOLO) terms that omit entries such as, well, "Tea Party." That's because the 17 terms explored in the latest TIGTA report is are not even remotely comprehensive; the new document was not meant to supplant previous findings, but to augment them with examinations of how other search terms were treated. It simply does not prove what liberals want it to prove. And even the new TIGTA data confirms that 87 percent (53/61) of "targeted" "progressive" groups were processed within less than one year.  Contrast that with the collective fate of the conservative organizations analyzed by USA Today above.  It is flatly wrong to claim, "there was nothing to any of this."  There certainly was.  The numbers tell the story, as do the DOJ settlements, and the admissions and apologies (both in 2013 and 2017) from the IRS itself.   To say nothing of key IRS players' verifiable lies and deliberate deceptions about the whole episode.  

I reached out to House Republican sources who are deeply familiar with this entire saga, seeking a response to the emerging lefty tale.  In addition to echoing several of the points above, one senior aide told Townhall, "in a sharp contrast from the 2013 TIGTA report that found IRS used inappropriate criteria, this report goes out of its way to clarify that there is no finding whether the criteria reviewed in this report were inappropriate.  In many instances, the criteria (ACORN, EMERGE, progressive, etc.) were being reviewed or were on the IRS’ radar for legitimate Tax Administration purposes, such as determining whether a private benefit was being conferred onto an individual. In the Tea Party cases, IRS held cases for additional review because of political party affiliation, not because of legitimate tax administration purposes."  Also, on a rudimentary level, Mother Jones' claim that only 19 right-leaning groups were targeted (10 of which were Tea Party) is laughable on its face.  The IRS-provided data cited earlier references between 104 and 248 targeted conservative organizations.  And the DOJ just settled with 41 of them.  Math can be difficult, but 248, 104 and 41 are all larger numbers than 19 or ten.  

Mother Jones concludes its piece by spiking the football, sneering that the TIGTA report exposes how the IRS scandal was much ado about absolutely nothing -- much like the firestorms over the Benghazi massacre and Hillary Clinton's national security-compromising email scheme, about which she lied shamelessly and endlessly.  Indeed, if you're willing to ignore huge amounts of established data (while sometimes even overlooking or discounting actual admissions of wrongdoing) in order to reach your preferred ideological conclusion, you're likely also quite proficient at denying and dismissing all sorts of information that may inconvenience your tribe.  Liberal bloggers are welcome to inhabit a fantasy world in which every controversy featuring Democratic misconduct and dishonesty is illegitimate and fabricated, but they cannot erase the official record in order to gaslight the country into believing that a genuine scandal never occurred. It did.  The data proves it.

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