WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A Democrat probing Internal Revenue Service scrutiny of conservative “Tea Party” groups released documents on Friday suggesting that “Occupy” and other liberal-leaning groups received extra attention as well.
Representative Elijah Cummings, the top Democrat on the House of Representatives’ Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said the documents suggested that liberal key words such as “Progressive” and “Occupy” were used by IRS staff to sift through applications for added review, in addition to conservative key words “Tea Party” and “Patriot.”
“Occupy Wall Street” and similar groups have sprouted up in recent years to protest corporate power.
Cummings blasted the chief of the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, or TIGTA, who issued a report two months ago that said the agency unfairly singled out conservatives when reviewing applications for tax-exempt status.
Cummings called for TIGTA’s chief, J. Russell George, to be summoned before the committee.
“This investigation ... has been characterized by one-sided and partial information leading to unsubstantiated accusations with no basis in fact,” Cummings said in a letter to Republican Representative Darrell Issa, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee chairman.
A TIGTA spokeswoman said, “We stand by our findings and testimony.”
Republicans say the targeting of conservative groups shows political bias in the IRS under Democratic President Barack Obama’s administration and Issa’s probe has pursued that aspect.
The scandal led Obama to oust the IRS chief from his job and several others were removed from their posts at the agency.
Issa and Cummings have squabbled over what their privately conducted joint interviews with IRS staffers have proved.
Documents released by Cummings on Friday included a May 3, 2013, email between George and his deputy for investigations. In those documents, the deputy concluded after a search of 5,500 IRS emails that there was no sign of political motives in Tea Party searches.
An IRS official acknowledged two months ago that conservative groups were inappropriately targeted.
The investigation will heat up again next week when acting IRS chief Daniel Werfel will testify before another committee probing the matter. Issa’s panel will hear, as well, from as-yet-unnamed Washington officials and IRS workers from the IRS’ Cincinnati office that handles tax-exempt applications.
One political analyst said it was hard for Democrats to change the story line that conservatives suffered the most.
“A case can be made that activists on the far right and far left were both targeted, but the perception is pretty much set in stone that the Tea Party and other conservative groups were the primary victims,” said Greg Valliere, who advises investors in Washington for Potomac Research.
Ali Ahmad, a spokesman for Issa, said the latest Cummings documents did not prove that liberal groups got the same level of scrutiny as Tea Party-type groups.
George has reported that 100 percent of the Tea Party-like groups were held up for more than two years, while a fraction of the liberal groups experienced such delays.
Aides to Cummings countered that TIGTA never followed up and appeared to look narrowly at Tea Party cases.
The use of “BOLO” - or “be on the lookout” - lists at the IRS for screening applications has been suspended. The FBI, as well as congressional committees, are investigating.
The internal documents released by Cummings, including emails and Power Point presentations, showed that words like “Occupy” were being used in February 2012.
One document suggests “Progressive” was used during a July 2010 training, along with “Tea Party,” as key words that indicated potential political activity.
Ahmad pointed to a line of the minutes of that meeting, “Progressive applications are not considered Tea Parties,” which he said showed the scrutiny was different.
Groups seeking tax exemption under federal law may engage in limited amounts of political activity, depending on the type of exemption sought. That and the vagueness of the rules often make it difficult for IRS agents to tell which groups overstep and become ineligible for tax exemption.
Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Peter Cooney