Charles Watkins, an attorney at Webster, Chamberlain & Bean who advises groups during the application process, said the IRS set up a Cincinnati-based task force specifically focused on nonprofit applications.
“This is a whole other level of investigation,” Watkins told Roll Call. “Typically a [501(c)(4) application] went through with nothing.”
The IRS announced that this year it would begin sending “comprehensive questionnaires” to groups that have already filed tax returns “to ensure that they have classified themselves correctly and that they are complying with applicable rules.”
Dean Patterson, a spokesman for the IRS, denied the existence of a special committee but said the IRS has a “companion process that administers the same provisions of the tax law in the context of new applications for tax-exempt status. The legal issues and the information that will inform our discussions will be similar in both contexts.”
Conservative organizations have been most willing to go public with these letters, so it is unclear how many left-leaning organizations might have received similar communications. But several liberal groups contacted by Roll Call did not report similar experiences.
For example, a spokesman for Protect- YourCare, a 501(c)(4) set up to defend the new health care law, said the group has not received any kind of questionnaire from the IRS. Another liberal 501(c)(4) granted tax exempt status in May received only a modest six-part questionnaire.
The conservative groups that have received the letters all appear to be small local organizations, such as the Kentucky 9/12 Project and the Richmond Tea Party.
“When you’re a small organization, what do you have to lose? Nothing. They have to respond in order to protect their own First Amendment interests,” said Jay Sekulow, a conservative lawyer at the American Center for Law and Justice, representing almost 20 tea party groups in a harassment claim against the IRS. “In some cases, these applications have been sitting for two years. Why now in the middle of an election year?”
Welch said that he is most concerned that taxpayers are subsidizing political activity through a tax deduction intended for charities.
“It’s no different than an individual getting notification from the IRS that they are doing an audit,” he told Roll Call. “If you’ve paid your taxes, you have nothing to be worried about.”
The groups that have been asked to turn over donor lists are particularly alarmed because the names would become public once their status is approved.
“There is a difference between transparency of your organization and privacy of your donors,” said Toby Marie Walker, of the Waco Tea Party in Texas, which has received one of these letters.
She said she has collected the letters of almost 40 tea party organizations that say they have received similar communications.