The IRS vs. the NAACP

Human Rights

With all the news coverage of the recent presidential election, you may have missed a story that bears watching. The Internal Revenue Service, that paragon of efficiency and ethics, is coming after the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. In late October, newspapers including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times and USA Today published stories outlining the strange case of the NAACP suddenly coming under IRS scrutiny. "Citing Speech, IRS Decides to Review NAACP," read the story headline in the Oct. 29 edition of The New York Times. The story by Michael Janofsky detailed an Oct. 8 letter from an IRS operative to NAACP chairman Julian Bond. The letter "reminded the association that tax-exempt organizations were legally barred from supporting or opposing any candidate for elective office," Janofsky wrote in the Times. Incredibly, it seems that the IRS decided that a speech that Bond gave back in July, during the NAACP's annual convention in Philadelphia, constituted a political speech which "conveyed statements in opposition of George W. Bush for the office of the Presidency." You may recall that the Philadelphia gathering of the nation's oldest civil rights organization was the same confab that Bush had declined to attend.

You may also recall that Bond, in that Philadelphia address and other speeches, has roundly criticized the Bush administration for it's negligence of civil rights issues. But less obvious to lay people – and to the IRS, apparently – is the fact that the federal tax code carries no language barring non-profit groups from criticizing elected officials in public speech. Moreover, as Bond pointed out in several interviews following disclosure of the IRS' attempt to jack up the NAACP, he has been critical of past presidential administrations, too, on a host of public policy moves, including welfare reform and affirmative action. Indeed, the meat of his speech to the crowd in Philadelphia last July was hardly outrageous: "The election this fall is a contest between two widely disparate views of who we are and what we believe," Bond told the crowd at the annual convention in Philadelphia last summer. "One view wants to march us backward through history – surrendering control of government to special interests, weakening democracy, giving religion veto power over science, curtailing civil liberties, despoiling the environment." Clearly Bond wasn't necessarily talking about the Democratic Party with those comments, but neither did he single out Bush or his cabinet members by name. Yet, the Oct. 8 letter from the IRS to the NAACP accused Bond of using language in that Philadelphia speech that "condemned the administration policies of George W. Bush in education, the economy and the war in Iraq." Of course, the IRS commissioner, Mark W. Everson, denies political motivation in the agency's move against the NAACP. "The IRS follows strict procedures involving the selection of tax-exempt organizations for adit and resolution of any complaints about such groups," Everson told The New York Times. "Career civil servants, not political appointees, make these decisions in a fair, impartial manner," Everson continued. "Any suggestion that the IRS has tilted its audit activities for political purposes is repugnant and groundless."

Sure thing, chief! But, as we learned from the Swift Boat Veterans' scurrilous attacks on Democratic presidential candidate Senator John Kerry, the Bush administration is especially adept at getting surrogates to do its dirty work. And if a couple or several well-placed complaints from Republican operatives led to the IRS investigation of the NAACP mere weeks before the presidential election, it doesn't take a genius – or a conspiracy theorist – to sense the cold hand of political intimidation at work. Ultimately, only time will tell if the IRS is really serious about its "investigation" (it has asked Bond to provide a list of names of board members, their salaries, job descriptions, etc.) or if the agency was simply grandstanding as the presidential election approached. But, the bullying implication is clear: as Bond observed in an interview in late October,"It's Orwellian to believe that criticism of the president is not allowed or that the president is somehow immune from criticism." And more than that, of course, is the possibility that the IRS has the power to revoke the NAACP's nonprofit status, a move that would create disaster for the 95-year-old civil rights organization.

The Oct. 8 letter, which came to light in late October after the NAACP issued a press release, represents nasty business, indeed. If one needed any more evidence of the Bush administration's thin-skinned nature, or its willingness to play fast and loose with protocol or old-fashioned goodwill, you have only to consider the boldness of the IRS' move on the NAACP. Fortunately, to my pleasant surprise, the mainstream press did grasp the breadth of hypocrisy in the whole thing – at least as the story broke. With the exception of The Wall Street Journal, all the big papers jumped right on the news of the investigation, even amid all the election stories that peaked in the last week of October. To their credit, newspapers like Newsday, USA Today, and The Timeses on both coasts gave the story and Bond's comments good play (though no one other than a handful of small papers ran the story on the front page.)

Yet, I raise a key question regarding the press'searly watch-dogging of this development: Who will continue to follow this so-called "investigation?" Clearly, amid Bush's recent post-election cabinet shake-ups and the on-going war in Iraq, expecting any news organization to devote significant resources to the story is unrealistic. All the same, it certainly merits bird-dogging, if for no other reason than the IRS should be held accountable for the timing and veracity of its claims against the NAACP. Already, there are signs that the story has fallen off the radar of the big news organizations, even as the NAACP moves to protect itself. When I spoke to Julian Bond late last week, he said that NAACP lawyers have advised against complying with the IRS' request. "We've sent them a letter saying we want an administrative summons before we'll hand over any information," Bond said. "It's my understanding from our lawyers, that that is the only way we should provide the information they seek – in a setting where we can argue our position."

In another life, I worked for the IRS's 501 (C)-3 division; this was in the early 1980s, at the IRS regional office in San Francisco. I was an undergraduate in need of a part-time job, and a friend of my mom (herself a career federal employee) hooked me up. My boss was a kindly, middle-aged white man who lived in Marin County, across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. He was a veteran bureaucrat with a keen eye for statistics, details, and bullshit; he also had wicked sense of humor, and a soft-spot for enterprising college kids such as myself. I was a drone, a clerk-slash-secretary who provided support for the dozen agents in the unit. From what I observed, the men and women who followed the doings of the many non-profit organizations in that office at 450 Golden Gate Avenue had integrity, courage, and believed their work protected the public's trust. (You don't want a non-profit organization such as the Unification Church or the United Way to be running off to Bermuda with public money, right?) As I viewed them, they were the unsung heroes of the IRS, the "good guys," because they did their jobs cleanly and thoroughly in the face of mountainous public disdain, and little respect from within the IRS. They were also decidedly non-partisan. Now, though, I wonder how the agents in the nation's capital – those lucky ducks who presumably will be charged with "investigating" the NAACP – feel about this impending assignment.

I guess I won't know – until some intrepid reporter decides to find out.

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