The IRS might be reading your emails.
Last month, the American Civil Liberties Union came forward with what it believes is evidence that the IRS may be violating Americans’ rights under the Fourth Amendment – that which protects against unreasonable search and seizure – by reading private emails without a warrant. Under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, the government does not need a search warrant to read emails that are more than 180 days old. Serendipitously, an uncharacteristic push for email privacy reform emerged in the Republican House on Friday, even as the GOP expressed outrage at being unfairly targeted for IRS investigation.
Revelations emerged that the Internal Revenue Service singled out conservative nonprofit groups for extra scrutiny regarding their political activities during the 2012 elections. IRS officials have admitted that they targeted organizations with words like “patriot” or “Tea Party” in their tax-exempt status applications and that as many as 75 such groups were subjected to extra scrutiny regarding their political activities. These groups, which claim tax-exempt status through section 501(c) (4) of the federal tax code, are prohibited from engaging in political activities as a primary purpose of their organization. What that means is not clearly defined and appears to remain up to the discretion of the IRS.
The IRS also investigated about 225 other social welfare groups . None of the groups, including those matching the offending terms, had their tax exempt status revoked as a result. In May 2012 the IRS appears to have implemented a more neutral means of identifying nonprofit groups who it believes should be investigated for possible political involvement. The IRS now focuses on investigating any political campaign activities undertaken by tax-exempt nonprofits.
The IRS apologized last Friday, calling its method of focusing on conservative nonprofits that used those terms in their applications “inappropriate.” The agency was under the leadership of Commissioner Douglas Schulman at the time. Schulman was appointed by President George W. Bush in 2006. Attorney General Eric Holder announced earlier today that the FBI will be investigating the allegations against the IRS.
Republican leaders under the Bush administration were less reactionary when the IRS investigated political activities of liberal churches and organizations like the NAACP. A guest sermon by Rev. George F. Regas at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, CA, on Oct. 31, 2004 prompted IRS investigations into the church. Regas delivered a sermon in which he depicted Jesus debating against candidates George W. Bush and John Kerry. He said that he did not encourage his parishioners to vote for either man.
When Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank) asked the Government Accountability Office to investigate the IRS in the interests of protecting the Constitutional free speech rights of clergy like Rev. Regas, the GAO declined. In 2007, the IRS closed their investigation of All Saints with the ruling that Regas’s sermon had, in fact, constituted an endorsement of a political candidate.
In another prominent case, the IRS notified the NAACP in Oct. 2004 that it was investigating the organization’s tax-exempt status after Julian Bond gave a speech criticizing Bush and other politicians. The two-year investigation ended with the IRS finding that Bond’s remarks did not violate the NAACP responsibilities as a tax-exempt organization. Bond maintains that the IRS targeted the NAACP for political reasons.
As the House cries of outrage against the IRS build, and investigations cast a harsh light on which terms were used to single out conservatives, it's unclear whether the same scrutiny will be given to the Fourth Amendment violations against regular American citizens.