A federal judge ordered the IRS this week to turn over the list of 298 groups it targeted for intrusive scrutiny as the agency defends against a potential class-action lawsuit by tea party groups who claim their constitutional rights were violated.
The IRS had argued it shouldn’t have to release the names because doing so would violate privacy laws, but Judge Susan J. Dlott, who sits in the Southern District of Ohio, rejected that claim and ordered the tax agency to turn over any lists or spreadsheets detailing the groups that were targeted and when they filed their applications.
Judge Dlott also ordered the IRS to say whether a partial list of targeted groups reported by USA Today is authentic as a number of tea party groups try to win certification for a class action lawsuit against the IRS.
“The return information sought is directly related to the issue of class certification in this federal court proceeding,” the judge said. “The names of the putative class member organizations and their control dates – the date which the putative class member organizations submitted their applications for tax exempt status to the IRS – are directly related to the issue of class certification.”
The judge has not yet certified the tea party groups as a class, and the information that they’ve obtained so far through depositions remains under seal. But backers say if they can be certified, then they will begin to try to pry loose some of the key information about how the IRS chose which groups it went after in its targeting.
“We’re at the precipice,” said Mark Meckler, a member of one of the tea party groups suing, and also president of Citizens for Self-Governance, which is funding the litigation.
The Ohio lawsuit is the only major legal jeopardy still remaining in the courts for the IRS — though the agency is still facing an FBI investigation, according to documents obtained by True the Vote, a tea party group, under the Freedom of Information Act.
Earlier this week the deporting U.S. attorney in Washington, D.C. informed House Speaker John A. Boehner he would not prosecute Lois G. Lerner, the former senior executive who’s at the center of the targeting scandal, for contempt of Congress. The prosecutor said Ms. Lerner didn’t waiver her Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination when she delivered an opening statement at a congressional hearing but then refused follow-up questions.
The scandal developed after the IRS acknowledged it singled out tea party groups for special scrutiny, and asked intrusive questions that agency executives later said were inappropriate. The IRS’s inspector general concluded that 298 groups were targeted, with all but a handful of them leaning toward the conservative side.
But the IRS has resisted releasing the official list, arguing that is private information.
“The Internal Revenue Service cannot disclose the identities of the potential class members because that is return information protected,” the administration said in its court filings.
The judge disagreed, saying exemptions in law apply to a case like this.
Several other cases had been filed in Washington, D.C., by tea party groups trying to force a judge to proactively halt any future targeting. The judge tossed those cases, saying that the IRS insists the targeting has ended, so there is no further action needed.
But some groups are still awaiting approval, including one that’s been pending for more than five years, which their lawyers argue means the IRS is still targeting despite its insistence that its program has ended.
Commissioner John Koskinen has said groups that are still waiting could take a deal, promising to limit their political activities to 40 percent of their business, but the groups argue that would mean giving up rights since they believe under current law politicking can be almost 50 percent of their activities.