ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Congressional Democrats say Tea Party groups weren't the only ones being targeted by the IRS. And they released some documents that they say prove it. IRS employees looked for certain terms when they were deciding which groups to flag for extra scrutiny. The spreadsheets full of terms were known as Be On the Lookout list. And it turns out that those lists also contain the term progressives. This raises some questions, for instance, why wasn't this mentioned sooner in the inspector general's audit that got the whole controversy started?
NPR's Tamara Keith is tracking all the twists and turns of this story.
TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: The 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 Democrats want to know why the audit didn't mention progressive groups who were also listed on IRS Be On the Lookout notices or BOLOs.
Michigan Democrat Sander Levin is the ranking member on the House Ways and Means Committee.
REPRESENTATIVE SANDER LEVIN: 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.
KEITH: At a House Oversight Committee hearing on May 22nd, the Committee Chairman Darrel Issa asked if liberal groups were singled out too. Here's his exchange with the inspector General J. Russell George.
REPRESENTATIVE DARRELL ISSA: 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?
KEITH: And here's George's answer.
J. RUSSELL GEORGE: Under the report, the review, 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.
KEITH: But the redacted BOLO lists released by Congressman 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, which was originally requested by Issa. George addressed this at the hearing back in May.
GEORGE: And as you are aware, Mr. Chairman, our audit was initiated based on concerns that you expressed due to taxpayer allegations that they were subjected to unfair treatment by the IRS.
KEITH: 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 six of the report says that although other groups were listed by name in various BOLOs, quote, "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 investigators were not aware of any BOLOs listing progressive organizations when conducting the review. An aide to Congressman 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.
Marcus Owens is a partner in the Washington law firm of Caplin & Drysdale. In the 1990s, he was the director of the Exempt Organizations Unit at the IRS.
MARCUS OWENS: All in all, it's a real mess. And I don't think the inspector general has necessarily been completely fair to the IRS or completely candid to the American public.
KEITH: These new documents are just one more small piece in a large and complicated puzzle where 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.
Tamara Keith, NPR News, the Capitol.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.