IRS, Sen. Carl Levin, And The Truth Behind Right-Wing Media's Latest Phony Conspiracy Theory

Right-wing media falsely claimed that newly released documents from Judicial Watch showed that Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) pressured the IRS to target conservative groups for additional scrutiny. Levin's letters simply show that he asked the IRS to hold both Democratic and Republican groups accountable to valid tax-exempt regulations, and he made his correspondence public record more than a year ago.

Conservative Advocacy Group Judicial Watch Obtains IRS Emails 

Judicial Watch: Newly Obtained Documents "Reveal Unusual Pressure from Key Democrat Senator to Target Conservatives." On May 14, conservative group Judicial Watch released over a thousand pages of IRS documents dating back to February 2010 regarding purported mishandling of Tea Party applications for tax-exempt status, and claimed, “A series of letters between Senator Levin (D-MI), chairman of the Subcommittee on Investigations, and top IRS officials throughout 2012 discuss how to target conservative groups the senator claimed were 'engaged in political activities.'” [Judicial Watch Press Room, 5/14/15

Right-Wing Media Pretend Sen. Carl Levin Has Been Caught “Red Handed” Directing Political Targeting

Fox's Doocy: Judicial Watch Emails Show Sen. Carl Levin “Trying To Use The IRS To Go Ahead And Clobber His Political Opponents.” On May 15, Fox News' Fox & Friends co-host Steve Doocy argued that Judicial Watch's newly released emails show that “something illegal was going on there” and that Levin has been “caught red handed trying to use the IRS to go ahead and clobber his political opponents” (emphasis added):

DOOCY: So bad news for the White House because this blows up their story, and bad news for Carl Levin because he's been caught red handed trying to use the IRS to go ahead and clobber his political opponents. [Fox News, Fox & Friends5/15/14]

Breitbart: "Levin Pressured IRS To Target Conservative Groups." On May 15, a Breitbart blog claimed that the newly released emails showed “Democratic Sen.Carl Levin (D-MI) pressuring the IRS to target conservative groups”:

[N]ewly released emails obtained by Judicial Watch detail Democratic Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) pressuring the IRS to target conservative groups. On March 30, 2012 Levin wrote to then IRS commissioner Douglas Shulman about his concern with the political activity by conservative nonprofits. 

“Some entities claiming tax-exempt status as social welfare organizations under 26 U.S.C.&501(c)(4) appear to be engaged in political activities more appropriate for political organizations claiming tax-exempt status under 26 U.S.C.&527. Because of the urgency of the issues involved in this matter, please provide the following information by April 20, 2012.” [Breitbart, 5/15/14]

NRO: Emails Show IRS “Used As A Political Weapon” At Behest Of Democrats. On May 16, National Review Online's Kevin Williamson claimed that Judicial Watch offered “conclusive and irrefutable” evidence that the IRS was “used as a political weapon” to target conservatives “at the behest of Democratic officeholders, including Senator Carl Levin.” It further alleged that Levin “requested that the IRS disclose to him information about tea-party groups that it would have been illegal for the IRS to disclose.” [National Review Online, 5/16/15]

The Daily Caller: “New Emails: Democratic Senator Pressured IRS To Target Groups.” In a May 14 post titled “New Emails: Democratic Senator Pressured IRS To Target Groups,” the Daily Caller claimed:

The IRS' Washington, D.C. headquarters targeted conservative groups in part due to pressure from Democratic Sen. Carl Levin, according to emails obtained by the watchdog group Judicial Watch and reviewed by The Daily Caller.

Levin, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs' permanent subcommittee on investigations, wrote a March 30, 2012 letter to then-IRS commissioner Douglas Shulman discussing the “urgency” of the issue of possible political activity by nonprofit applicants. Levin asked if the IRS was sending out additional information requests to applicant groups and citing an IRS rejection letter to a conservative group as an example of how the IRS should be conducting its business. [The Daily Caller, 5/14/14]

Sen. Levin Expressed Concern About Tax Exemption Violations By Nonprofits On Both Left And Right

June 13, 2012: Sen. Carl Levin Urges IRS To “Remind All 501(c)(4) Organizations About Their Obligations To Observe” Restrictions On Campaign Activity To Maintain Tax Exempt Status. On June 13, 2012, Levin sent a letter to IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman expressing concern that groups with a tax-exemption under IRS Code Section 501(c)(4) were “increasingly active in partisan political campaigns” and were “able to avoid revealing their funding sources by hiding behind their tax-exempt status” -- a potential violation of the requirements allowing such groups to obtain tax exemptions. Levin explained that IRS standards require that political activity “must constitute a secondary and not the primary activity” of such organizations and asked that they be reminded of that requirement. The letter did not ask the IRS to specifically look at conservative groups, but requested that “all 501(c)(4) organizations be reminded of the restriction”:

At a minimum under either the 1997 letter or Mr. Miller's interpretation, a message needs to be sent to Section 501(c)(4) entities on an urgent basis to ensure they understand that any political activities they undertake must constitute a secondary and not the primary activity of their organization. To make the message crystal clear, I urge the IRS to remind all 501(c)(4) organizations about their obligation to observe that restriction on their activities if they want to retain their tax exempt status. [Judicial Watch, accessed 5/15/14]

July 27, 2012: Levin Cited Political Activity On Both Sides: “This Is Not A Partisan Issue.” Levin sent another inquiry to the IRS on July 27 expressing concern that groups with tax-exempt status were not fulfilling the regulations of a “social welfare” organization, jeopardizing their 501(c)(4) status. In the letter, Levin provides the example of two television advertisements that were put on by 501(c)(4) organizations, pointing out that “the subject of Advertisement #1 is a Democratic Senator, and the subject of Advertisement #2 is a Republican Senator,” and concluded “This is not a partisan issue.” [Judicial Watch, accessed 5/15/14]

October 23, 2010: Levin Asked IRS To Examine Potentially Improper Political Activity Of Both Democratic And Conservative Organizations. In an October 23 letter to the IRS, Levin asked the IRS to specifically look into four organizations to see if they were “engaged primarily in the promotion of social welfare” -- two from each side of the aisle. Levin listed Crossroads Grassroots, Priorities U.S.A., Americans for Prosperity, and the Patriot Majority USA as the specific groups he wanted the IRS to review. Of those, both Priorities U.S.A. and Patriot Majority are progressive-leaning groups. [Judicial Watch, accessed 5/15/14]

Judicial Watch's Sen. Levin Emails Are Old News

Levin Requested That His Correspondence With IRS Be Part Of Congressional Record. During a September 19, 2012 Senate floor statement on the IRS and 501(c)(4) organizations, Sen. Levin again argued that there has been a “growth of groups that parade as social welfare groups but are obviously organized for politically partisan purposes,” but he a did not single out conservative groups. Levin also requested that his correspondence with the IRS be included in the congressional record. [, 9/19/12]

Senator Carl Levin: Emails To IRS Are “No Secret.” As Levin's office told Media Matters, his letters to the IRS are “no secret” and have largely been available to the public on his website since 2012:

Sen. Levin's correspondence with the IRS is no secret - he entered much of it into the Congressional Record, and posted it on his website, in 2012. He listed both liberal and conservative groups appearing to violate the legal prohibition on campaigning by nonprofits. Letters that were publicized this week focused on four groups, two liberal, two conservative - equally divided, contrary to the implication that he sought to single out conservative groups. He believes any group, conservative or liberal, should not abuse its tax-exempt status by using a taxpayer subsidy to buy campaign ads. [Statement from Sen. Levin's office to Media Matters, 5/16/14; Levin.Senate.gov9/19/12]