WASHINGTON — The Internal Revenue Service is embroiled in battles with tea party and other conservative groups who claim the government is purposely frustrating their attempts to gain tax-exempt status.
The fight features instances in which the IRS has asked for voluminous details about the groups' postings on social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook, information on donors and key members' relatives, and copies of all literature they have distributed to their members, according to documents provided by some organizations.
While refusing to comment on specific cases, IRS officials said they are merely trying to gather enough information to decide whether groups qualify for the tax exemption. Most organizations are applying under section 501(c)(4) of the federal tax code, which grants tax-exempt status to certain groups as long as they are not primarily involved in activity that could influence an election, a determination that is up to the IRS.
The tax agency would seem a natural target for tea party groups, which espouse smaller and less intrusive government and lower taxes. Yet over the years, the IRS has periodically been accused of political vendettas by liberals and conservatives alike, usually without merit, tax experts say.
The latest dispute comes early in an election year in which the IRS is under pressure to monitor tax-exempt groups — like the Republican-leaning Crossroads GPS and Democratic-leaning Priorities USA — which can shovel unlimited amounts of money to allies to influence campaigns, even while not being required to disclose their donors.
Two nonpartisan campaign finance watchdogs called on the IRS last fall to strip some large groups of tax-exempt status, claiming they engage in so much political activity that they don't qualify for the designation.