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TARGETED: Kevin Kookogey, founder and president  of Linchpins of Liberty, and Dianne Belsom of the Laurens County Tea Party testify during a hearing before the House Ways and Means Committee.
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TARGETED: Kevin Kookogey, founder and president of Linchpins of Liberty, and Dianne Belsom of the Laurens County Tea Party testify during a hearing before the House Ways and Means Committee.

Doubling down

IRS Scandal | The Obama administration plows ahead with IRS plans to clamp down on some nonprofit groups

Issue: "Inside the wire," March 22, 2014

WASHINGTON—In 2008, Tennessee resident Kevin Kookogey birthed an idea to educate and mentor young people in conservative thought and the foundations of Western civilization. He began meeting with young adults one-on-one over coffee, or inviting several to his house for a Saturday morning breakfast. It was a process he says looked very similar to missionary work: “It’s like sharing the gospel.”

Kookogey founded Linchpins of Liberty in 2010, and in order to raise money, on Jan. 3, 2011, he submitted an application for nonprofit status to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). The request should have taken only two to four months to process, but the agency stonewalled Kookogey for almost three years, asking him to provide a litany of information ranging from the political affiliations of his mentors to donor lists and the identities of his students—including minors.

The IRS finally approved Linchpins of Liberty in December 2013, but not before Kookogey says the agency effectively killed it: Linchpins froze formal operation when Kookogey realized he was being targeted, and the organization lost a $30,000 launch grant when its nonprofit application was still pending at the end of 2011. “It’s like a lifeguard throwing a life preserver to a swimmer that’s already dead,” said the 46-year-old, who is a homeschooling father of six.

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The new rules would bar 501(c)(4)s from conducting voter registration drives, distributing voter guides, using any candidate’s name, or using words such as ‘oppose,’ ‘support,’ and ‘reject.’

Members of both parties expressed outrage last year when Lois Lerner, then director of the IRS tax-exempt division, acknowledged the agency improperly scrutinized conservative groups with names like “tea party” or “patriot” during the 2010 and 2012 election cycles. “It’s inexcusable, and Americans are right to be angry about it, and I’m angry about it,” said President Barack Obama in a May 15 statement. “I’ll do everything in my power to make sure that nothing like this ever happens again.” But as the nation awaited firings and prosecutions, none came. Many conservative groups claim they’re still being targeted, and the vast majority say federal officials investigating the IRS have not interviewed them.

Now the Obama administration is on the cusp of enacting new IRS regulations that conservative groups—and a few liberal ones—say will codify the practices that were universally denounced only nine months ago. On Black Friday, Nov. 29, the IRS quietly issued proposed regulations for social welfare organizations—classified in the tax code as 501(c)(4)s—which includes groups like Americans for Prosperity and Tea Party Patriots on the right, and Sierra Club and MoveOn.org on the left. The new rules would bar them from, among many other things, conducting voter registration drives, distributing voter guides, using any candidate’s name,or using words such as “oppose,” “support,” and “reject.” (A 501(c)(4) nonprofit currently may endorse or oppose political candidates and help political campaigns. A 501(c)(3) may lobby on political issues, but without endorsing or opposing political candidates and with only a limited part of its budget.)

The administration portrayed the rules as clarification for social welfare groups in the wake of the targeting, but House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., cast doubt on that explanation during a Feb. 5 hearing. Camp produced a 2012 email from a senior Treasury Department official to IRS employees, including Lois Lerner, referencing an “off-plan” project related to 501(c)(4) guidelines. (The IRS normally posts future regulations online.) Camp said interviews with IRS staff revealed that plans to change the regulations date back to 2011, showing the administration “fabricated” its public rationale. “You don’t get to change the rules in the middle of the game to justify your bad behavior,” Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), told members of a House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee in February.

At last count, the IRS had received more than 140,000 public comments on the proposed regulations, easily an agency record. Most of those are negative, including a 26-page filing from the American Civil Liberties Union, but not all: Democrats and some campaign finance experts argue the change will help close a loophole for 501(c)(4) organizations. Donald Tobin, a professor at Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law, told me social welfare groups were never intended to be involved in politics and pour hundreds of millions of dollars into elections. He called the new regulations “a good first step” to correct the problem: “Right now you have significant abuse by a lot of groups.”

Political groups have flocked to the 501(c)(4) status since 2000, when lawmakers started requiring 527 political organizations, such as the Republican National Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, to disclose their donors. Even Obama, after his 2012 reelection, relaunched his campaign as a 501(c)(4) organization to raise money and promote his second term agenda. Tobin says it was never supposed to be that way, and it’s “just not true” that groups would be silenced or have to shut down under the new rules: “They can form a 527 and engage in this all they want.”

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