By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog
SANTA FE – U.S. Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico was one of nine Senate Democrats listed in a complaint filed Tuesday with the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Ethics, arguing the senators improperly contacted the Internal Revenue Service to investigate nonprofit political groups.
“Richard Nixon faced impeachment charges for attempting to use the IRS for political purposes,” said David Keating, president of the Center for Competitive Politics, a right-of-center group that describes itself as defenders of free speech. “To varying degrees, each of these senators did exactly this kind of conduct. It clearly violates the Senate rules.”
But Udall told New Mexico Watchdog he hasn’t been targeting one political group over another.
“No group seeking to influence elections should get tax-exempt status, whether they are liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican,” Udall said in an email. “I continue to believe New Mexicans have a right to know who is trying to influence their vote, and who is paying for all those negative ads on television.”
In addition to Udall, the CCP complaint mentions U.S. Sens. Carl Levin, D-Mich.; Dick Durbin, D-Ill.; Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.; Michael Bennet, D-Colo.; Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I.; Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H.; Al Franken, D-Minn.; and Jeff Merkley, D-Ore.
The senators had expressed their opposition to the Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission case concerning campaign spending, and contacted the IRS asking the agency to see if some organizations applying for tax-free status under 501(c)4 rules were engaging in political activity more so than social welfare.
In March 2012, Udall signed a letter along with six other Senate Democrats to IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman “to urge you to investigate these allegations.”
The letter didn’t specifically mention any specific groups, but did reference a New York Times article that mentioned American Crossroads, a group co-founded by Karl Rove.
In 2013, allegations surfaced that the IRS was targeting politically conservative groups.
Keating said his organization has no problem with members of Congress contacting the IRS and asking general questions about enforcing regulations.
“Where we draw the line is when they specifically name organizations and ask for investigations,” Keating told New Mexico Watchdog in a telephone interview. “Congress is a lawmaking body. It’s not a body in charge of enforcing the law and it shouldn’t be targeting individual citizens or individual groups … That’s not their role.”
“Sen. Udall wrote to the IRS in 2012 asking for better transparency and enforcement under the law because he was concerned that the IRS had failed to stop front groups in both parties from filing false statements and engaging in illegal amounts of political activity,” Udall spokeswoman Jennifer Talhelm said Tuesday. “He has followed up with the IRS to propose three substantive rules to make it easier for them to apply the rules fairly to everyone and to prevent shadowy groups from breaking the law and increase transparency in elections.”
An IRS official told Levin such information could not be legally divulged.
“I’ll be the first to admit that what Udall did does not compare to what Sen. Levin did, but we still think it’s improper because he’s referencing specific individual organizations in context with the IRS,” Keating said.
Keating said that under Senate Ethics Committee rules, the committee must launch a preliminary inquiry upon receiving a formal complaint.
Click here to read the Center for Competitive Politics complaint.
And click here to read the letter sent to the IRS that Udall signed in 2012.
Contact Rob Nikolewski at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @robnikolewski