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PolitiFact: Did IRS target liberal groups during Bush administration?

Published Jun. 7, 2013

The statement

"During the Bush administration, liberal groups were targeted" by the IRS, similar to recent targeting.

Rep. Jim McDermott, June 4, in a congressional hearing

The ruling

At a House Ways and Means committee hearing, Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., listened to the stories from members of groups that were snagged when the IRS cast a wide net for politically active organizations seeking tax-exempt status. All of the groups advocate for conservative causes, from opposing gay marriage to promoting a broad tea party agenda.

While McDermott said he was sorry they had been singled out, he was more focused on the lack of clear legal rules that should guide the IRS.

"Let's not get lost," McDermott said. "During the Bush administration, liberal groups were targeted without any concern by Mr. Issa or anyone else in this committee." (Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., is chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.)

Were liberal groups targeted when a Republican held the White House? And if so, were the circumstances back then similar to what has come to light today?

McDermott's office pointed us to a recent Salon article that described how the IRS subjected the NAACP, Greenpeace and a liberal Episcopal church in California to sometimes intense scrutiny. In 2004, the IRS audited the NAACP after its chairman said President George W. Bush was the first sitting president since Herbert Hoover who declined to speak before the group.

The same year, the IRS moved to revoke the tax-exempt status of All Saints Episcopal in Pasadena.

That case dragged on for three years before the IRS dropped it. From 2004 to 2009, the IRS had a Political Activities Compliance Initiative aimed at 501(c)(3) groups that might have endorsed a candidate or otherwise crossed the line between charitable work and electioneering. In 2004, the IRS opened cases on 110 groups.

But the current controversy, which involves the examination of nearly 300 groups, is significantly different from the examples cited in the Salon article, experts told us. Among the differences:

• In the current case, the inspector general found that IRS staff used "inappropriate criteria" to identify groups for special attention. A group's name or a focus on government debt and spending triggered IRS action, rather than the group's activities.

• Most of the current groups, about 70 percent, held or were applying for 501(c)(4) status, not 501(c)(3). The limits on (c)(3) groups — the ones examined under Bush — are much more strict than for (c)(4) groups.

• The inspector general found that all current cases with "tea party," "patriots" or "9/12" in their name were singled out.

Our ruling

McDermott said liberal groups were targeted during the Bush administration. While some liberal groups were audited, the numbers we could find were small, largely confined to 501(c)(3) nonprofits where the rules are more strict, and stemmed from complaints levied by outsiders.

While there is an element of truth in McDermott's statement, the systematic nature of the IRS actions between 2010 and 2012 represents a distinctly different set of circumstances. We rate the statement Mostly False.

Edited for print. Read the full version at PolitiFact.com.

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