GOP questions IRS scrutiny of anti-abortion groups

GOP questions IRS scrutiny of Iowa anti-abortion group, others amid tea-party tax scandal

Associated Press

Associated Press Videos

Former IRS Chief: Can't Say How List Happened

Former IRS Chief: Can't Say How List Happened

Former IRS Chief: Can't Say How List Happened

Now watching

Next video starts in : 7 Play

Former IRS Chief: Can't Say How List Happened

Former IRS Chief: Can't Say How List Happened
Replay video
Up next

Boston Marathon Bombing Trial Begins

Boston Marathon Bombing Trial Begins Up next

Boston Marathon Bombing Trial Begins

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) -- When a small anti-abortion group in Iowa sought nonprofit status, the Internal Revenue Service asked its board to promise not to organize protests outside Planned Parenthood and demanded to know how its prayer meetings and protest signs were educational.

Although the Coalition for Life of Iowa's application was ultimately approved in 2009, the tax collection agency's treatment of that and other anti-abortion groups has gotten new attention in the wake of an ongoing scandal over the alleged targeting of conservative groups.

The IRS apologized for singling out tea party groups for scrutiny in 2010 and 2011, but Republicans now are seizing on the coalition's case to question whether the effort may have been broader and started earlier.

Groups with tax-exempt status, known as 501(c)(3) nonprofits, must have educational, charitable, religious or other charitable purposes and cannot be involved in elections or engage in substantial lobbying activity. But they can conduct educational campaigns about their causes that do not have to be balanced, and their members retain their constitutional rights to assemble and protest.

U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said Tuesday the IRS was out of bounds in seeking information on the group's prayer activities and a guarantee that it wouldn't protest at Planned Parenthood.

"That's outrageous that that statement would be made by anybody in government, that somehow you've got to compromise your First Amendment rights," Grassley said. "It appears the IRS offered this group a quid pro quo: you can become a charity if you don't protest in front of a Planned Parenthood."

Outgoing Acting IRS Commissioner Steven Miller told Grassley he was unaware of the case, but apologized generally for poor service.

The Iowa group isn't the only anti-abortion organization that appears to have been singled out for scrutiny. In 2011, another IRS employee asked Christian Voices for Life of Fort Bend County in Texas whether it provided "education on both sides of the issues" in its programs and whether its members try to speak with anyone entering medical clinics, correspondence shows.

Rep. Aaron Schock, R-Ill., said last week that the Iowa and Texas groups faced unfair IRS intrusion into their activities because of "political and religious bias" that chilled their constitutional rights. He turned over their IRS correspondence to the inspector general for tax administration and demanded an explanation.

Both groups received tax-exempt status after seeking help from the Thomas More Society, a conservative legal group. But counsel Sally Wagenmaker said the cases were troubling because the IRS asked inappropriate questions about their activities even though their applications should've raised no red flags, and they were forced to retain lawyers to win approval.

"Is it something bigger? I can't say. But is it of concern? Absolutely. Now the IRS is getting into content," she said. "The common thread here is scrutiny on a content basis and seeming to really bend over backwards on the conservative side."

Tax experts said the IRS inquiries appeared to be misguided attempts to ensure that groups were educational in nature and did not interfere with the rights of patients and employees.

"I can see what they are raising, but it seems to be there are very strong First Amendment issues here," said Richard Koontz, director of the Iowa Nonprofit Resource Center. "You don't want to let one nonprofit stop the activities of another. But you certainly want them to be able to criticize from dawn to dusk what another nonprofit is doing."

The Iowa group considers its mission to educate citizens about "the sanctity of life" and it has held forums on issues such as stem-cell research and euthanasia. Members also routinely walk and pray outside Planned Parenthood in Cedar Rapids. Sue Martinek, the group's president, submitted its application for tax-exempt status in October 2008.

An IRS employee identifying herself as "Ms. Richards" from the Cincinnati office responded in April 2009 that she needed more information about its events, including all "advertisements, schedules, syllabuses, handouts, a summary of each person's speech" and more, records show.

The coalition turned over those records, including Catholic writings opposing embryonic stem cell research and cloning and brochures handed out at events, including one that accused Planned Parenthood of promoting promiscuous behavior. In follow-up calls, "Ms. Richards" asked Martinek whether the group protested outside Planned Parenthood, Martinek said.

"Ms. Richards" informed her that its prayer gatherings there would be permissible — as long as "what we were doing would not be construed as protesting or picketing" and didn't involve harassment, according to a June 2009 email that Martinek sent to Wagenmaker. "Ms. Richards" said its application would be approved if board members promised in writing that the group would not protest outside Planned Parenthood, Martinek wrote.

Martinek said she and others were ready to sign such a statement, but that one board member saw it as a free speech violation and contacted Thomas More Society to protest.

Martinek sent a letter to IRS saying that members had debated its request not to organize Planned Parenthood protests, but wanted definitions of "organize, picketing, protesting" to ensure compliance. Rather than answer those questions, "Ms. Richards" responded with a letter seeking an explanation of how "prayer meetings held outside of Planned Parenthood are considered educational."

Wagenmaker responded with a letter saying the inquiries were legally improper and calling for the IRS to grant the application promptly. She said the coalition had organized one event to pray the rosary at Planned Parenthood and that members otherwise assembled there peacefully on their own, carrying signs such as "Women deserve better than abortion" that do not contain graphic images.

Days later, the IRS sent its approval notification.

"It was a little weird and it seemed like they wanted lots of information, but we wanted our status," Martinek said. "The IRS is so powerful, we were just hesitant to get on their bad list."

View Comments (533)

Recommended for You

  • US billionaire says WWII Japanese ship found in Philippines

    Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen said Wednesday he had found one of Japan's biggest and most famous battleships on a Philippine seabed, some 70 years after American forces sank it during World War II. Excited historians likened the discovery, if verified, to finding the Titanic, as they hailed the…

    AFP
  • NATO flotilla enters Black Sea for training amid Ukraine crisis

    A NATO flotilla arrived in the Black Sea on Wednesday to train with ships from the Bulgarian, Romanian and Turkish navies, the U.S.-led Western alliance said. Tensions in the Black Sea region are running high because of the separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine and Russia's annexation of the…

    Reuters
  • U.S. may review 1959 airplane crash that killed Buddy Holly

    (Reuters) - U.S. transportation safety investigators said on Wednesday they are reviewing a request to reopen a probe into the 1959 airplane crash that killed musicians Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, J.P. Richardson, better known as "The Big Bopper," and their pilot. The original investigation 56…

    Reuters
  • 175-Pound Pit Bull Hulk Shatters Misconceptions About the Breed

    This dog just may be the world's largest Pit Bull. Only 18-months-old, Hulk weighs a hefty 175 pounds. He's also best friends with a 3-year-old boy.

    ABC News
  • Marijuana Growers Arrested After Pocket Dialing 911

    Three men in California were arrested Monday night after one of the suspects pocket dialed 911. The emergency operator who took the call heard two of the men talking about the possibility of getting pulled over, leading to a major drug bust.

    KSWB - San Diego
  • Former marine reported killed in Syria

    A former Royal Marine has become the first Briton to be killed while fighting with Kurdish forces battling Islamic State jihadists in Syria, leaving his family "devastated" Wednesday. Konstandinos Erik Scurfield, 25, died on Monday in a battle with IS militants, a source in the Kurdish People's…

    AFP
  • Killers sought in deaths of 300,000 chickens in South Carolina

    By Harriet McLeod CHARLESTON, S.C. (Reuters) - Revenge may be the motive for the killings in South Carolina of more than 300,000 commercial chickens worth about $1.7 million over the past two weeks, authorities said on Monday. Birds have been found dead of unnatural causes in 16 chicken houses at…

    Reuters
  • Iranian president says Israel 'greatest danger'

    Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Wednesday said Israel creates the "greatest danger" in the region, after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned against a nuclear deal with the Islamic republic. In a speech on Capitol Hill, Netanyahu said Tuesday the nuclear agreement US President…

    AFP
  • 'Thousands' of Russian troops in east Ukraine: US envoy

    The United States' senior envoy to Europe alleged Wednesday that Russia had deployed "thousands and thousands" of troops to neighboring Ukraine. Speaking to a congressional foreign affairs committee, Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland also told US lawmakers that Russia was flooding…

    AFP
  • Survivor testifies about 2 friends stabbed, bound, drowned

    PHILADELPHIA (AP) — A man who survived being beaten, bound, stabbed in the neck and kicked into the Schuylkill River took the stand in a hearing Tuesday and described the night his two friends lost their lives.

    Associated Press
  • Americans Love K-Cups, but Their Creator Regrets Inventing Them

    Now it seems that John Sylvan, the inventor of the tiny containers, is firmly on Team #KillTheKCup too. “No matter what they say about recycling, those things will never be recyclable,” said Sylvan.

    Takepart.com
  • Georgia police officer killed in shootout

    By David Beasley ATLANTA (Reuters) - A Georgia police officer was killed in a shootout with a suspect in suburban Atlanta early on Wednesday, authorities said. Officers went to investigate reports of shots in a suburban neighborhood and came under fire about 1:30 a.m. EST, according to the Fulton…

    Reuters
  • Paris Hilton brother Conrad to plead guilty to plane assault

    LOS ANGELES (AP) — Paris Hilton's youngest brother, Conrad, agreed to plead guilty to assaulting flight attendants on a trip from London to Los Angeles last year when authorities say he called other passengers "peasants" and threatened to kill crew members.

    Associated Press
  • New Honda Civic breaks Nürburgring record

    The new Honda Civic Type R hot hatchback, officially unveiled at the Geneva Motor Show on Wednesday, is now also officially the world's fastest front-wheel-drive car. As well as taking the wraps off the eagerly awaited 306bhp, 167mph (269km/h) car, Honda also revealed that in testing it had posted…

    AFP Relax News
  • Ferguson Officials React to Department of Justice Report

    Officials in Ferguson will comment Wednesday on a scathing report from the Department of Justice about the police department`s treatment of African Americans.

    Tribune
  • Afghan forces kill dozens of militants in hostage rescue operation

    By Sarwar Amani KANDAHAR (Reuters) - Afghan security forces have killed dozens of militants in a military operation aimed at freeing a group of civilian hostages in southern Afghanistan, an army official said on Wednesday. Eyewitnesses said most passengers belonged to the ethnic Hazara minority, a…

    Reuters
  • Father says no proof his son is 'Jihadi John'

    The father of "Jihadi John" said in an interview published Wednesday that there was no proof that his son was the Islamic State executioner, adding there were a number of "false rumours" circulating. "There is nothing that proves what is being circulated in the media, especially through video clips…

    AFP