Conservatives with Tax Problems Like to Blame Their Problems on IRS Targeting

Through a month of scandal, a growing number of people conveniently claimed that the IRS had audited them because they are conservative — and claimed as much without much more proof than that 1) the IRS had audited them and 2) they are conservative.

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A handful of people were audited by the IRS after doing some conservative political activism, and therefore, McClatchy's David Lightman and Kevin G. Hall report, the IRS might have targeted them because of their conservatism. The story arrived late in a month of scandal when a growing number of people conveniently claimed that the IRS had audited them because they are conservative — and claimed as much without much more proof than that 1) the IRS had audited them and 2) they are conservative.

"Retired military veteran Mark Drabik of Nebraska became active in and donated to conservative causes, then found the IRS challenging his church donations," McClatchy reports, along with other anecdotes of conservatives having a hard time with the IRS. "[T]hese examples suggest the government was looking at a broader array of conservative groups and perhaps individuals." Without further evidence, these examples don't suggest that. But there has been an avalanche of claims — not just from would-be heroes, but average folk and major pundits — that because conservatives were audited, they were audited because they're conservative.

  • New York City strip club owner Sam Zherka says he was investigated by the IRS in 2010, shortly after calling for a local Tea Party. "They're investigating every dealing I've done, since the beginning of time," Zherka says. He claims the FBI is involved, too, and is suing both agencies.
  • Rep. Bill Flores suggested to The National Review that he might have been asked for more information about his tax returns because he made inquiries to the IRS on behalf of a Tea Party group in Texas.
  • Franklin Graham, president of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, told Politico that the IRS asked about his group's political activity because, "someone in the administration was targeting and attempting to intimidate us." 
  • Former Libertarian Party candidate Wayne Allyn Root said "I am the face of Obama’s IRS attacks," but as Mother Jones' Stephanie Mencimer reports, there were probably other reasons Root was audited. Like that in 2007, Root and his wife reported $215,000 in gross income, but had so many write offs that he claimed his taxable income was just $25,000. In 2008, his gross income was $209,000 but his taxable income was $136,000. Root apparently filed a Schedule C, Mencimer reports, and about 25 percent of all Schedule Cs get audited. 
  • The Wall Street Journal's Peggy Noonan made a similar claim, saying Romney donor Frank VanderSloot "found himself last June, for the first time in 30 years, the target of I.R.S. auditors." Does that mean VanderSloot was audited in 1982? No doubt he was being persecuted by Ronald Reagan.

As The New York Times' Nate Silver has explained, in 2012, the IRS got 144 million individual income tax returns. It audited just 1 percent — which means 1.5 million of them. That means you'd expect many, many of the people audited to be conservative. It does not mean the IRS was combing Mitt Romney's fundraising disclosures to find conservatives to audit.

According to a Treasury Department inspector general's report, a Cincinnati field office of the IRS improperly targeted conservatives when determining whether they should get tax-exempt status. The law says 501©(4)s must be educational organizations, not political ones. So they created short cuts to find groups that looked like they'd do campaign activity — names with words like "Tea Party" and missions involving cutting spending, reducing the debt, things like that. That's really bad! That's a scandal! But it's not evidence of a massive IRS-wide campaign to silence all conservative voters and donors. It's not evidence that the White House was on the phone with the IRS, siccing it on the president's enemies.

But many are looking for that evidence. The Daily Caller analyzed White House visitor logs and found that IRS commissioner Douglas Shulman visited the White House 157 times — far more than any other Cabinet member. Fox News' Brit Hume tweeted, "What was the ex-IRS chief doing at the White House all those times?" Bill O'Reilly said it was the "smoking gun."

But The Atlantic's Garance Frank-Ruta destroys that claim. The visitor records only show Shulman was cleared to visit the White House 157 times. A full 76 percent of those planned visits were related to the implementation of Obamacare, including 80 biweekly health reform deputies meetings. The vast majority of these visits were not in the White House proper, but the Eisenhower Executive Office Building and New Executive Office Building instead. And, just because you're cleared to meet at the White House doesn't mean you actually go. "Indeed, of the 157 events Shulman was cleared to attend, White House records only provide time of arrival information — confirming that he actually went to them — for 11 events over the 2009-2012 period, and time of departure information for only six appointments," Franke-Ruta reports.

Of the conservatives who blame their auditing on their politics, McClatchy writes, "Their collective experiences at a minimum could spread skepticism about the fairness of a powerful agency that should be above reproach and at worst could point to a secret political vendetta within the government against conservatives." Anyone who's been excessively generous in estimating the cost of their "home office" certainly hopes so.

(Photo by S.MiRK via Flickr.)

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.