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IRS Audit Counters Claims Of 'Witch Hunt' Targeting Conservatives


During the Obama administration, many conservatives railed against the IRS. They accused the agency of going on a witch hunt against Tea Party groups and other conservative organizations seeking tax exempt status. In fact, the IRS was targeting many progressive groups, too. That's the finding in a new report by the Treasury Department's own watchdog, as NPR's Peter Overby reports.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: The scandal goes back to 2013. An IRS official revealed the agency had for several years wrongly given extra scrutiny to groups that wanted tax exempt status and had names such as Tea Party or patriots. Getting that status was taking a year or more instead of months. Conservatives alleged a witch hunt organized by the Obama White House.

Now the inspector general overseeing the IRS has issued an analysis of how groups were targeted. It's the agency's third look at the question. The report found the IRS also zeroed in on groups using names like progressive. The inspector general did the report at the request of a bipartisan group of senators. One of them was Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden.

RON WYDEN: The far-right has been beating a drum for years now that there was a partisan attack on them.

OVERBY: Wyden said the new report doesn't absolve the IRS.

WYDEN: This was equal opportunity mismanagement and equal opportunity bellum.

OVERBY: Conservative lawyer Cleta Mitchell represents eight groups that got that extra scrutiny. The tax exempt status they wanted doesn't permit partisan political activity.

CLETA MITCHELL: And I can tell you. The groups for which I was counsel, there was no political activity - zero, none.

OVERBY: She said that even if progressive groups did get targeted...

MITCHELL: They didn't get subjected to the kind of follow-up that the Tea Party groups did. And I don't care how anybody wants to spin it. They just didn't.

OVERBY: The Obama administration did a housecleaning in the upper ranks of the IRS. Republicans held three years of hearings on Capitol Hill and slashed the IRS budget. They urged prosecution of the former head of the division on tax exempt groups, and they called for the IRS commissioner to be fired. He's still there. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Overby has covered Washington power, money, and influence since a foresighted NPR editor created the beat in 1994.