Two Republican congressmen are questioning contacts between the Internal Revenue Service and Federal Election Commission over an Iowa-based advocacy group, suggesting emails between the two show the tax agency illegally leaked confidential information about the group.
House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., and oversight subcommittee Chairman Charles Boustany, R-La., posted on the committee’s website an email exchange between an unidentified FEC attorney and IRS official Lois Lerner that occurred in 2009.
In one of the emails, the FEC enforcement division attorney said he had spoken to Lerner the previous July, and during the conversation she told him the Des Moines-based American Future Fund hadn’t received the tax exemption it applied for.
The attorney went on to ask in the email whether American Future Fund had been granted the exemption yet and then requested publicly available information about it and three other groups.
Lerner, a former FEC official, has been the focus of criticism over the IRS’ scrutiny of groups seeking tax-exempt status.
The agency has acknowledged that it gave extra scrutiny to conservative groups seeking nonprofit status. It also gave extra scrutiny to liberal groups, but Republicans say it wasn’t as aggressive as it was with conservatives.
Camp and Boustany sent a letter to the IRS on Wednesday asking questions about the American Future Fund matter, and they noted Lerner had responded to the FEC attorney’s email within nine minutes, asking that his request be accommodated.
“We have serious concerns that this email exchange demonstrates a continued pattern of the IRS unlawfully sharing confidential taxpayer information with others outside the agency,” Camp and Boustany said Wednesday.
In a statement Wednesday, the IRS said the emails actually indicate the two officials recognized their confidentiality obligations under the law.
“The email attached to the letter indicates that both Ms. Lerner and the FEC attorney recognized the IRS obligation to protect taxpayer information and that neither person wanted the IRS to provide the FEC with anything other than publicly available information,” the statement said.
The IRS said it still would review the matter.
In her email response to the FEC attorney, Lerner asked how the IRS could help the FEC. But she also wrote that she was a “little confused” about the attorney’s claim that she had told him that American Future Fund had not received an exemption.
Lerner wrote she may have told him the organization did not appear on a publication that lists tax-exempt groups.
Nick Ryan, the founder of the American Future Fund, said Wednesday that the correspondence “indicates questionable behavior by Lerner.”
“If the FEC and the IRS were discussing American Future Fund’s confidential tax information related to its pending application for tax exempt status, that would be a violation of taxpayer secrecy statues,” he said in a statement on American Future Fund’s website.
At the time of the emails, the American Future Fund was the subject of a complaint of election law violations filed by the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party.
The American Future Fund had filed its response to the charges the month before the conversation between the FEC attorney and Lerner.
The Des Moines group denied the allegations, and the FEC deadlocked, 3-3, on whether there was reason to believe it had broken the law. It voted unanimously to close the case after that. The FEC’s general counsel’s office had recommended that the FEC find violations of the law.
American Future Fund said it is a multi-state advocacy group that communicates conservative and free-market ideas and it is exercising its free speech rights. Critics say it and other groups organized as 501(c)4s are merely partisan political groups that want to influence campaigns and use the tax code governing nonprofits to hide the identity of their donors.
American Future Fund spent millions of dollars during last year’s elections, and in 2010, it was a particularly active advertiser during the race between U.S. Rep. Bruce Braley and Republican Ben Lange, launching a series of ads criticizing the Democratic congressman.
— Tibbetts is a reporter for the Quad-City Times, another Lee Enterprises newspaper.