Rep. Sander Levin, D-Mich., listens as ousted IRS Chief Steve Miller and J. Russell George, Treasury inspector general for tax administration, testify during a House Ways and Means Committee hearing on May 17.
Rep. Sander Levin, D-Mich., listens as ousted IRS Chief Steve Miller and J. Russell George, Treasury inspector general for tax administration, testify during a House Ways and Means Committee hearing on May 17. Charles Dharapak/AP
Congressional Democrats say Tea Party groups weren't the only ones being targeted by the Internal Revenue Service. And they have released some documents that they say prove it.
When IRS employees were deciding which groups to flag for extra scrutiny, they looked for certain terms. The spreadsheets full of those terms were known as "Be On the Lookout" lists, or BOLOs. And the BOLOs that Democrats have released contain the term "progressives."
This raises some questions. For instance: Why wasn't this mentioned sooner?
The IRS inspector general's report is clear: Tea Party groups were targeted by the IRS for extra scrutiny simply because they had "Tea Party" or "patriot" in their names. But the audit didn't mention progressive groups.
Democrats like Rep. Sander Levin of Michigan, the ranking member on the House Ways and Means Committee, want to know why.
"I think the failure of the IG to acknowledge this, to address it, created the opportunity for people to politicize this and to try to connect it with the president and to probably help lead to statements that were not true," he says.
At a House Oversight Committee hearing on May 22, Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., asked Inspector General J. Russell George if liberal groups were singled out, too: "Are you aware of at least one that was targeted using a BOLO that was a 501(c)(4), in which they were targeted politically but did not fall into this current report we have before us?"
George's answer: "For the purposes of the audit that we conducted, which was to determine whether they were looked for in the context of political campaign intervention, there were no others."
But the redacted BOLO lists released by Levin seem to clearly contradict that statement.
So why did the inspector general release a 50-page audit with no mention of progressives being targeted, too? A spokeswoman for the inspector general says that was outside the scope of the audit that was originally requested by Issa.
George addressed this at the hearing back in May. "As you are aware, Mr. Chairman," he told Issa, "our audit was initiated based on concerns that you expressed due to taxpayer allegations that they were subjected to unfair treatment by the IRS."
The spokeswoman says the inspector general was asked to look at the targeting and treatment of Tea Party groups. And that's exactly what the audit did — and not much more. A footnote on Page 6 of the report says that although other groups were listed by name in various BOLOs, "We did not review the use of other named organizations on the BOLO listing to determine if their use was appropriate."
Another reason progressives weren't mentioned: The inspector general's spokeswoman tells NPR, "TIGTA [Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration] was not aware of any BOLOs listing progressive organizations when it conducted its review."
An aide to Levin says that's shocking, given that his office released the same documents the IRS gave to the inspector general, and almost all of them contain the term "progressives."
"All in all, it's a real mess," says Marcus Owens, a partner in the Washington law firm of Caplin & Drysdale, who was the director of the exempt-organizations unit at the IRS in the 1990s. "I don't think the inspector general has necessarily been completely fair to the IRS or completely candid to the American public."
These new documents are just one more small piece in a large and complicated puzzle — and it seems a lot of the pieces are still missing.
Republicans on the House committees investigating the scandal say the fact that the term "progressives" appeared on these lists doesn't prove anything. They say Tea Party groups got tougher treatment than their liberal counterparts.
Based on the evidence that's been made public so far, it's nearly impossible to know for sure. The now more complicated IRS controversy comes back to Congress on Thursday at a House Ways and Means Committee hearing.