The IRS has a culture of targeting some organizations that went beyond the extra scrutiny given to Tea Party groups, Rep. Dave Camp, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said as he opened a panel hearing on the IRS Tuesday.
Suggesting a pattern, Camp listed gift-tax audits of donors to a group that supported the war in Iraq, the release of confidential information from other groups, and extensive questions to Republican-leaning organizations.
“Americans were affected by the culture of political intimidation and discrimination that was cultivated by this targeting,” said Camp, a Michigan Republican. “For simply exercising their First Amendment rights — the freedoms of association, expression and religion, the IRS singled them out.”
The hearing signaled the two parties’ different views of investigations into the tax agency over the past month. Republicans say the IRS demonstrated bias against small-government groups while Democrats say the controversy resulted from a series of errors and flawed laws and rules.
Rep. Jim McDermott, a Washington Democrat, said Republicans are looking to create a conspiracy that doesn’t exist.
Speaking to representatives of the tea party groups at the witness table, he said: “None of your organizations were kept from organizing or silenced. We’re talking about whether or not the American taxpayers will subsidize your work. We’re talking about a tax break.”
Among the witnesses testifying at today’s hearing was John Eastman, chairman of the National Organization for Marriage. The group’s political opponents received its confidential information, including a donor list, that contained markings suggesting it had come from the IRS. That can’t be inadvertent and it has chilled donors, he said.
“You can imagine our shock and disgust over this,” he said. He said he has been “stonewalled” in attempts to get information about the document release from the IRS or its inspector general. Eastman’s group opposes same-sex marriage.
The IRS said the inspector general’s investigation found that the release of information was inadvertent.
The inspector general released a report today that said the IRS spent $4 million on a 2010 conference for employees in Anaheim, Calif., including $17,000 for a speaker who painted pictures of Michael Jordan and U2 singer Bono to motivate employees.
The tax agency spent about $49 million on 225 conferences from fiscal 2010 to 2012, it said. Two top IRS officials stayed in presidential suites that typically cost between $1,499 and $3,500 a night in Anaheim, the most expensive of the conferences, the report said.
The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform plans a June 6 hearing on the IRS spending.
Also testifying to the Ways and Means Committee today was Sue Martinek, president of the Coalition for Life of Iowa, which she said was asked not to protest at Planned Parenthood as a condition of receiving tax-exempt status.
The hearing is the Ways and Means panel’s second since the IRS revealed May 10 that it had selected some groups with “tea party” or “patriot” in their names for tougher scrutiny of their applications for tax-exempt status.
Rep. Sander Levin, the top Ways and Means Democrat, said he thought the IRS request made to Martinek’s anti-abortion group was “worse than inappropriate.”
“I do think it’s our obligation to get the facts and not deal in conjecture,” said Levin, D-Mich.
Six congressional committees and the Justice Department are investigating the IRS.
Dianne Belson, president of the Laurens County Tea Party in South Carolina, said she is still waiting to hear from the IRS on her group’s application for tax-exempt status after answering repeated and extensive questionnaires from the agency.
“Nearly three years of waiting for an answer is totally unacceptable,” she said. “The IRS needs to be fully investigated and held accountable for its incompetence, harassment, and targeting of conservative groups.”
Becky Gerritson, president of the Wetumpka Tea Party in Alabama, which has been approved for tax-exempt status, said she didn’t want to disclose lists of volunteers to the IRS.
“The questions were chilling,” she said. “I was shocked that I was being asked those questions.”
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