WASHINGTON—The National Organization for Marriage (NOM) sued the federal government on Thursday over allegations that the Internal Revenue Service illegally disclosed a tax return to its chief political opponent, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC).
“We have been trying for 18 months to identify the culprit of who disclosed our tax returns and hold them accountable,” John Eastman, NOM’s board chairman said during a Thursday press call. “To date, nothing has happened.”
The HRC, which supports efforts to legalize gay marriage, obtained a copy of NOM’s 2008 tax return and released it—including names and addresses of donors—in March 2012. HRC claimed the document came from a NOM whistleblower, but NOM says computer technicians were able to remove redacted portions of the return and prove it came from the IRS.
“This is a federal crime,” said NOM president Brian Brown. “[T]he confidential information contained in the illegally leaked documents included the identity of dozens of our major donors and the HRC used this confidential donor information to harass our donors.”
The HRC removed the information from its website after receiving a letter from NOM, but the Huffington Post has refused to take down the return.
NOM’s accusations are part of what many believe is a broader problem at the IRS: Since May Congress has been investigating allegations that the agency has targeted conservative groups for years. Lois Lerner, the official responsible for overseeing approval of tax exempt organizations, retired last month—four months after she appeared before a congressional committee and invoked her Fifth Amendment right not to testify on the grounds that it might incriminate her.
But NOM’s issue is different, and it says one of the primary reasons for the lawsuit is to get more information. The group still doesn’t know who at the IRS leaked the return and says the agency is stonewalling congressional committees and its own efforts to get the facts.
“We’ve been through three rounds of [Freedom of Information Act] requests,” said Cleta Mitchell, one of the attorneys working on the case. “We gave the IRS more time to tell us, ‘We’re not going to tell you anything.’”
Mitchell said they are particularly interested in the timing of the disclosure: In the spring of 2012 Mitt Romney had become the presumptive Republican nominee for president, and NOM’s 2008 return revealed his political action committee, the Free and Strong America PAC, donated $10,000 to the organization while it was battling to get Proposition 8 approved in California. Shortly before the disclosure, the HRC’s president became a national co-chair of President Barack Obama’s reelection campaign.
One new fact has emerged since Eastman’s June testimony before Congress: The IRS confirmed no one representing NOM had requested the tax return—which debunked the HRC’s “whistleblower” explanation for how it obtained the information.
The ActRight Legal Foundation filed the lawsuit Thursday morning in U.S. District Court in Virginia, where NOM is located. Mitchell said the complaint seeks $55,000 for direct costs and lost contributions, but that figure will change once more information comes to light.
Further findings may also produce another lawsuit: “We believe the statute allows us to bring a civil suit against the Human Rights Campaign,” Eastman said. “If I were them I’d be very nervous.”