True the Coverage

Some of the organizations targeted for scrutiny by the IRS actually deserve scrutiny--a nuance that is getting lost

Just about everyone in Washington agrees that the IRS’s blanket targeting of Tea Party groups by keying on words in their titles was, at best, misguided. But that doesn’t mean that every Tea Party organization that found itself under the IRS microscope was wrongly targeted—a nuance sometimes lost in the coverage.

Take True the Vote , a project of the Texas-based King Street Patriots, which was founded in 2010 to fight voter fraud. Since earlier this month, when the IRS revealed that agents in the Cincinnati branch office were targeting Tea Party groups, a number of news organizations have reported on the flood of intrusive queries that True the Vote has faced as it slogged through five rounds of IRS questionnaires. Some have also given prominent billing to founder Catherine Engelbrecht’s complaints. “This is what the beginning of tyranny looks like,” Engelbrecht, told “If such politically-motivated governmental abuses of power can happen to us, they can happen to anyone.”

Some reporters have cited True the Vote’s ordeal as evidence that the targeting was more widespread than the IRS admits. Last week, The Washington Post published a piece alleging that IRS officials in Washington were “involved with investigating conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status, making it clear that the effort reached well beyond the branch in Cincinnati that was initially blamed.” All the documents and examples cited in the story came from two groups: True the Vote and the King Street Patriots. Ted Oberg, an investigative correspondent with Houston’s ABC affiliate, KTRK , also reported on the Washington connection and True the Vote’s take on its implications:

True the Vote says there is simply no way this is the work of some isolated, low-level rogue IRS employees in Cincinnati, Ohio, as the IRS initially said. They know that because they’ve gotten questions from Ogden, Utah. And more concerning to Englebrecht, documents reveal IRS employees admitted the application was being reviewed by a task force at the IRS in Washington, DC.

If Oberg gave the IRS a chance to respond, he didn’t say so in the story. Perhaps more importantly, neither he nor the Post questioned True the Vote’s claims that it was targeted because of its Tea Party affiliations, although the group doesn’t exactly fit the profile. As far as we know, the IRS has only improperly targeted would-be “social welfare” groups, or 501(c)4s, which are allowed to engage in some political activity. True the Vote has applied for 501(c)3 nonprofit status, meaning it is barred from engaging in electoral politics, especially of the partisan variety.

Also, there are plenty of reasons beyond its Tea Party ties that the IRS might have put True the Vote under a microscope, the most obvious being its flouting of the ban on political activity. The group focuses on elections. It argues that it’s only interested in ensuring elections are “free and fair,” and that its efforts are nonpartisan, but its partisan leanings are plain. Engelbrecht spits the word “Democrat” like a slur. One of the True the Vote’s early promotional videos made the claim that “Republicans have to win by at least 3 percent in order to win an election” because Democrats cast so many fraudulent votes.

In Texas, True the Vote’s poll watchers have been known to work exclusively with GOP candidates and target heavily black and Hispanic precincts, which tend to lean Democratic. And their in-your-face approach has drawn numerous complaints of voter intimidation. True the Vote’s parent organization, the King Street Patriots (a 501(c)4), has also held Republican-only candidate forums.

Based on the group’s partisan record, in 2010, the Texas Democratic Party filed a suit charging that the King Street Patriots (which had yet to spin True the Vote off into a separate organization) was not a legitimate non-profit, but an unregistered political action committee that had illegally aided the Republican Party with its poll-watching activities. A district court later rule in the party’s favor. (True the Vote, which is represented by Citizen’s United mastermind James Bopp, has appealed the decision).

True the Vote’s activities outside Texas have been equally controversial. Recently, several news organizations have devoted entire stories to the fact that the IRS has raised questions about True the Vote and local Tea Party groups’ work on the recall election for Wisconsin’s Republican governor, Scott Walker—among other things, they rallied some 17,000 volunteers to scour the recall petition for problematic signatures and recruited hundreds of activists to work as poll watchers. Regional papers have done a good job of setting this information in context. Wisconsin’s Chippewa Herald, for example, quoted election law attorney Mike Wittenwyler saying “it’s well within the IRS’ purview” to ask these kinds of questions. But the only real context The Associated Press provided was the following:

The IRS is accused of improperly targeting conservative groups who were applying for tax-exempt status. The ousted chief of the IRS told Congress Friday that his agency made errors in targeting conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status, but he says the mistakes were not the result of partisan views.

This makes it sound as if the IRS’s queries about True the Vote and its partners’ work in Wisconsin are another example of agency overreach, when in fact the IRS may have had good reason for asking such questions. True the Vote’s activities in Wisconsin had a distinctly partisan flavor, and it worked closely with Wisconsin Republican officials, particularly on the poll-watcher trainings it hosted around the state. As I reported in The Atlantic last fall , the Racine training was conducted partly by a local Republican official named Lou D’Abbraccio, who told attendees point blank that the plan was to target “heavily skewed Democratic ward[s].” Voting-rights advocates later alleged that conservative poll observers—many of them recruited and trained by True the Vote—hovered over voters in poor black and Hispanic precincts. There were also reports of observers following voters out to the parking lot and photographing their license plates or sending voters to the wrong polling paces.

At the least, such activities deserve a hard look from the IRS, a nuance that the press ought to keep in mind as this story unfolds.

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Mariah Blake writes for the United States Project, CJR's politics and policy desk. She is based in Washington, DC, and her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New Republic, Foreign Policy, Salon, The Washington Monthly, and CJR, among other publications. Tags: , , , ,