Politicians Set IRS on Tax-Free Foes

WASHINGTON -- Members of Congress and the White House have triggered audits of hundreds of tax-exempt groups this decade by lodging complaints with the Internal Revenue Service against their political foes.

The referrals range from citizen letters and newspaper articles to personal demands for investigations, according to documents reviewed by The Associated Press.

The White House once referred a constituent complaint about a group that had suggested presidential lawyer Vincent Foster had been murdered. Democratic lawmakers sought investigations of conservatives ranging from the Heritage Foundation to the Reverend Jerry Falwell.

And the Republican chairman of the House committee that writes tax laws sought an audit of a Buddhist temple in California after it was host for a Democratic fund-raiser featuring Vice President Al Gore.

"It is my assumption that the Internal Revenue Service has commenced, or will soon commence, an investigation into these activities," House Ways and Means chairman Bill Archer wrote Oct. 18, 1996, just three weeks before the presidential election.

The IRS says less than 1 percent of the 6,000 to 10,000 audits of tax-exempt groups each year originate with complaints from lawmakers or the White House. The White House forwards about 1,300 constituent letters each year to the IRS ranging from complaints of wrongdoing to obscure tax questions.

Officials say audit decisions are based solely on evidence of wrongdoing, not on the political stature of the requesters or any positions taken by the group involved. Federal law generally prohibits tax-exempt groups from advocating the election or defeat of political candidates.

"We read our mail and deal with the facts appropriately. To ignore the mail is a dereliction of responsibility," said Marcus Owens, the IRS official who oversees tax-exempt organizations.

Owens said any auditors making a politically motivated decision "would lose their jobs and perhaps would wind up with deeper legal problems."

One lawmaker who sought an audit contends politics does play a role.

Former Representative David Skaggs, a Democrat from Colorado, said he referred two conservative organizations to the IRS in 1996 to achieve some "evenhandedness'' after House Republicans began a "very concerted assault'' on liberal tax-exempt groups.

Skaggs referred the Heritage Foundation and Citizens Against Government Waste to the tax agency based on a newspaper report. It said the groups had sent out a mailing signed by Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole and then had shared the list of responders with Dole's campaign.

Within two months of Skaggs' request, both groups found themselves undergoing costly audits that are ongoing.

"I believed then and I believe now that these were serious possible violations and the appropriate step was to ask the people with the expertise," Skaggs said. "But it would be incredible to suggest, and I won't, that there was not a political dimension to these things. Of course there is."

Critics say the system is ripe for abuse by politicians eager to sic the IRS on enemies. The Landmark Legal Foundation, a conservative legal group, sued the IRS to gain access to requests for audits, and found that requests from Congress and the White House go up in election years.