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How the IRS’ Nonprofit Division Got So Dysfunctional

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Posted on May 17, 2013
Shutterstock photo of tax forms.

By Kim Barker and Justin Elliott, ProPublica

(Page 2)

In the 1980s, the division issued many more “revenue rulings” than issued in recent years, said Cerny, then head of the rulings process. These revenue rulings set precedents for the division. Revenue rulings along with regulations are basically the binding IRS rules for nonprofits.

“We would do a revenue ruling, so the public and agents would know,” Cerny said. “Over the years, it apparently was felt that a revenue ruling should only be published at an extraordinary time. So today you’re lucky if you get one a year. Sometimes it’s less than that. It’s amazing to me.”

Other checks and balances had existed too. Not only were certain kinds of applications publicly flagged, there was another mechanism called “post-review,” Owens said. Headquarters in Washington would pull a random sample every month from the different field offices, to see how applications were being reviewed. There was also a surprise “saturation review,” once a year, for each of the offices, where everything from a certain time period needed to be sent to Washington for another look.

So internally, the division had ways, if imperfect, to flag potential problems. It also had ways of letting the public know what exactly agents were looking at and how the division was approaching controversial topics.


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For instance, there was the division’s “Continuing Professional Education,” or CPE, technical instruction program. These articles were supposed to be used for training of line agents, collecting and putting out the agency’s best information on a particular topic 2014 on, say, political activity by social welfare nonprofits in 1995.

“People in a group would write up their thoughts: 2018Here’s the law,’” said Beth Kingsley, a Washington lawyer with Harmon, Curran, Spielberg & Eisenberg who’s worked with nonprofits for almost 20 years. “It wasn’t pushing the envelope. It was, 2018This is how we see this issue.’ It told us what the IRS was thinking.”

The system began to change in the mid-1990s. The IRS was having trouble hiring people for low-level positions in field offices like New York or Atlanta 2014 the kinds of workers that typically reviewed applications by nonprofits, Owens said.

The answer to this was simple: Cincinnati.

The city had a history of being able to hire people at low federal grades, which in 1995 paid between $19,704 and $38,814 a year 2014 almost the same as those federal grades paid in New York City or Chicago. (Adjusted for inflation, that’s between $30,064 and $59,222 now.)

“That was well below what the prevailing rate was in the New York City area for accountants with training,” Owens said. “We had one accountant who just had gotten out of jail 2014 that’s the sort of people who would show up for jobs. That was really the low point.”

So in 1995, the Exempt Organizations division started to centralize. Instead of field offices evaluating applications for nonprofits in each region, those applications would all be sent to one mailing address, a post-office box in Covington, Ky. Then a central office in Cincinnati would review all the applications.

Almost inadvertently, because people there were willing to work for less than elsewhere, Cincinnati became ground zero for nonprofit applications.

For the time being, the checks remained in place. The criteria for flagged nonprofits were still made public. The Continuing Professional Education text was still made public. Saturation reviews and post reviews were still in place.

But by 1998, after hearings in which Republican Senator Trent Lott accused the IRS of “Gestapo-like” tactics, a new law mandated the agency’s restructuring. In the years that followed, the agency aimed to streamline. For most of the 201890s, the IRS had more than 100,000 employees. That number would drop every year, to slightly less than 90,000 by 2012.

Change also came to the Exempt Organizations division.

The IRS tried to remove discretion from lower-level employees around the country by creating rules they had to follow. While the reorganization was designed to centralize power in the agency’s Washington headquarters, it didn’t work out that way.

“The distance between Cincinnati and Washington was such that soon Cincinnati became a power center,” said Streckfus, the former IRS lawyer.

Following reorganization, many highly trained lawyers in Washington who previously handled the most sensitive nonprofit applications were reassigned to focus on special projects, he said.

Owens, who left the IRS in 2000 but stayed in touch with his old division, said the focus on efficiency meant “eliminating those steps deemed unimportant and anachronistic.”

In 2003, the saturation reviews and post reviews ended, and the public list of criteria that would get an application referred to headquarters disappeared, Owens said. Instead, agents in Cincinnati could ask to have cases reviewed, if they wanted. But they didn’t very often.

“No one really knows what kinds of cases are being sent to Washington, if any,” Owens said. “It’s all opaque now. It’s gone dark.”

By the end of 2004, the Continuing Professional Education articles stopped.

Recommendations from an ABA task force for IRS guidelines on social welfare nonprofits and politics that same year were met with silence. 

Even the IRS’s Political Activities Compliance Initiative, which investigated complaints of charities engaged in politics 2014 primarily churches 2014 closed up shop in early 2009 after less than five years, without any explanation. 

Both before and after the changes, the Exempt Organizations division has been a small part of the IRS, which is focused on collecting money and chasing delinquent taxpayers.  

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