Tax Day was earlier this week. Like many Americans, I said some prayers — and a few curses — and hoped that Turbo Tax made sense of my mid-year move from D.C. to Texas, my investment roll-overs, my handful of I-9s and W-2s. I did my damnedest to be “true, correct, and complete,” as the IRS insisted. Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld admitted via Twitter that he has “absolutely no idea whether our tax returns and our tax payments are accurate,” though, of course, he didn’t say that he knew that they weren’t accurate.
Campaign for Liberty, Ron Paul’s 501(c)(4) organization, announced this week that it’s actually pretty sure that its tax recent filings are incomplete, even if true and correct. (Two out of three ain’t bad?) According to C4L, the organization refused to divulge the names of its donors when it filed its IRS 990 forms. The IRS fined Campaign for Liberty just shy of $13,000, plus growing interest for each day the fine goes unpaid.
How did Campaign for Liberty respond? Not as you might expect….
Megan Stiles, the communications director at Campaign for Liberty, told the Washington Examiner in an email on Tuesday:
There is no legitimate reason for the IRS to know who donates to Campaign for Liberty. The IRS technically requires donor information from 501(c)(4) organizations and is forbidden by law from releasing it to the public, yet despite this they have ‘mistakenly’ released the information repeatedly over the years. Often these leaks have been made to political opponents of the conservative groups whose information was leaked. Leaking the donor information is intended to harass and to intimidate those donors from donating to political causes. Campaign for Liberty has refused to provide donor information to the IRS to protect the privacy of our members. Now the IRS has demanded the information and fined Campaign for Liberty for protecting its members’ privacy.
Stiles goes on to write:
We believe the First Amendment is on our side as evidenced by cases such as NAACP v. Alabama and International Union UAW v. National Right to Work. Many 501(c)(4) organizations protect the privacy of their donors in the very same way as Campaign for Liberty. For some reason the IRS has now chosen to single out Campaign for Liberty for special attention. We plan to fight this all the way.
The IRS letter to C4L indicates that the IRS “charged a penalty because you didn’t file a complete return,” further explaining that “Schedule B, Schedule of Contributors, is a required attachment for Form 990, 990-EZ, or 990-PF. All organizations must complete and attach Schedule B or certify they are not required to file a Schedule B.” C4L’s 990 dated 11/15/13 is public information, and it does check “yes” when asked if it is among the organizations required to file a Schedule B. Schedule B is required of most tax-exempt organizations that receive $5,000 or more in donations each year.
Campaign for Liberty’s announcement is a little strange for a number of reasons. The cases Stiles breezily cites to are, for one thing, sort of weak sauce as express legal authority, especially International Union UAW v. National Right to Work. Are they defying the law as an act of civil disobedience? Are they claiming that the IRS is asking them to disclose information that they are in fact not required by law to disclose? Are they claiming that, though they are required by law to disclose the information, the IRS routinely overlooks this shortcoming in other organizations? Campaign for Liberty’s precise argument is not altogether clear.
Nevertheless, can you blame them for being skeptical of how the IRS will treat them and their donors? It’s been a year since the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration conceded that the IRS used “inappropriate criteria that identified for review Tea Party and other organizations applying for tax-exempt status based on their names or policy positions instead of indications of potential political campaign intervention.” President Obama himself has in the past used donor lists to publicly chastise private citizens who oppose him politically.
The investigation by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee crawls along with all the deliberate speed of a patient on Seconal. However, Judicial Watch released yesterday a new batch of internal IRS emails showing that former IRS official Lois Lerner communicated with the Department of Justice on strategies for targeting 501(c)(4) groups. Even as Lerner broke the news of the IRS scandal by blaming “low-level” employees in Cincinnati, Lerner was still consulting with the DOJ about how the targeted organizations could be prosecuted. There’s mounting evidence to support conservative concerns about the political nature of the IRS.
In November, the IRS proposed changes to the rules governing 501(c)(4) organizations. The changes would constrict the political activity of groups claiming this tax-exempt status and require them to disclose their donors. The proposal elicited a record-breaking 169,000 public comments. IRS Commissioner John Koskinen told USA Today on Monday that, given the extraordinary number of comments, “In all likelihood we will re-propose a redefined rule and ask for more public comment.” He predicted that the process would not be complete “until the end of the year and beyond.”
Conservatives like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) have opposed these changes, unsurprisingly. However, even the ACLU has criticized the proposed rules as unduly burdensome on First Amendment rights. It’s not only conservatives who should be wary about not only what the IRS has done in the past, but also what it aims to do in the future.
Can you blame Campaign for Liberty for not wanting to expose its private-citizen donors to retribution, even if that means disregarding IRS demands? Perhaps we should just ask former Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich what the consequences of disclosure might be.
Tamara Tabo is a summa cum laude graduate of the Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas Southern University, where she served as Editor-in-Chief of the school’s law review. After graduation, she clerked on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. She will be working at the Center for Legal Pedagogy at Texas Southern University during the 2013-2014 academic year. She looks forward to a career of teaching and writing about, but never practicing, law. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org