On its way out the door, the Obama Justice Department made one last attempt to bury a lawsuit over allegations that the IRS targeted conservative nonprofit groups for improper scrutiny.
True the Vote, founded in 2009 to advocate for measure to ensure the integrity of elections, sued in 2013 after the tax agency had held up its nonprofit tax-exempt status for 3.5 years. The IRS argues that the lawsuit should be thrown out now that True the Vote has been recognized as a 501(c)3 organization.
“Someone needs to be held to account for those 3½ years when we didn’t have status … Who was aiming the cannons at us?”
But True the Vote maintains that the government has not detailed the individual employees responsible for holding up the application and has not put into place adequate safeguards to prevent improper handling of nonprofit applications in the future.
“Someone needs to be held to account for those 3.5 years when we didn’t have status … Who was aiming the cannons at us?” asked Catherine Engelbrecht, the group’s founder.
That question cannot be answered without a period of gathering documents and questioning witnesses under oath known as discovering, Engelbrecht said. The IRS has asked the judge to rule in its favor, without discovery. A hearing is scheduled in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on March 2.
“We should be allowed discovery,” Engelbrecht said. “The case hasn’t been dismissed. The appeals court made that clear.”
A spokesman for the IRS declined to comment, citing the agency’s policy regarding pending litigation.
Attorneys for True the Vote argue in a document filed last week that the IRS is ignoring the ruling of the appeals court that reinstated the case after the trial judge dismissed it. They also argue that the IRS has done nothing to demonstrate that the voting-integrity group will not be targeted again except to submit an inspector general’s report that makes no specific mention of True the Vote.
That inspector general’s report, in fact — while praising reforms implemented by the IRS — pointed to a number of remaining deficiencies.
“Their own evidence that was entered into court states that this targeting could happen again,” said Logan Churchwell, a spokesman for the Public Interest Legal Foundation, one of the firms representing True the Vote.
The case will carry over from the Obama Justice Department to Trump’s, but administrations rarely reverse course in cases inherited from their predecessors. And even if the new administration wanted to change positions, the ball now is in the judge’s court.
“That cake is really being baked right now,” Churchwell said.
He said the IRS, while it was reviewing True the Vote’s application, demanded reams of intrusive information, such as a list of current and former staffers and whether any of them — or their immediate family members — had political aspirations. The IRS also wanted to know about speeches anyone who represented the organization had given and the content of those speeches.
Churchwell said True the Vote wants that information returned to the organization or destroy.
“They still have it,” he said. “It’s still in their records. It can be disclosed whether it’s supposed to [be] or not.”
Chuchwell said that if the judge fails to grant discovery, it will set up a “make-or-break hearing” to determine the outcome of the case.
Without rigid procedures, Churchwell said, the abuses of the Obama administration could occur again — and not just against conservative-leaning organizations.
“If this protection does not go into place, history could repeat itself and easily [be] turned against the other side of the spectrum,” he said.
Engelbrecht said: “America still needs to see a resolution on this, not just a paper shuffle, which is what we’ve seen.”