-By Jonathan Weisman
March 6, 2012- WASHINGTON — The Internal Revenue Service is caught in an election-year struggle between Democratic lawmakers pressing for a crackdown on nonprofit political groups and conservative organizations accusing the tax agency of conducting a politically charged witch hunt.
In recent weeks, the I.R.S. has sent dozens of detailed questionnaires to Tea Party organizations applying for nonprofit tax status, demanding to know their political leanings and activities. The agency plans this year to press existing nonprofits like American Crossroads, on the Republican side, and Priorities USA, on the Democratic side, to justify their tax-protected status as “social welfare” organizations, a status that many tax professionals believe is being badly abused.
Senate Democrats are readying a fresh legislative push to demand that such groups disclose their donors and attach disclaimers to their political advertising identifying the advertisement’s primary funders. Tax experts are also raising concerns that corporate donors to “super PACs” may be deducting their contributions as business expenses.
“The shadowy attack ads we see every day should be brought into the light,” said Senator Michael Bennet, Democrat of Colorado. “The largest contributors should stand by the ads they’ve paid for, the voters should know who’s behind these ads, and these super PACs should not be allowed to abuse our tax code by masquerading as nonprofit charities.”
The pushback is likely to be just as fierce. Jay Sekulow, a conservative lawyer known more for his stands on religious freedom than for his tax work, said he is representing 16 Tea Party groups that are claiming harassment by the I.R.S., and the number is growing. He said he intended to demand an explanation from the Treasury Department on Wednesday for what he called “McCarthyism” tactics and that he would contact Republican lawmakers this week.
“This is obviously a coordinated effort by the I.R.S. to stifle these Tea Party and Tea Party-affiliated groups, and to stifle free speech activities,” Mr. Sekulow said. “It’s as onerous as what they did to the N.A.A.C.P. in the 1950s, and I plan to make that point.”
With independent political groups already dominating the 2012 campaign cycle, their treatment under tax and campaign finance law is likely to be a recurring theme in the coming months. Senate Democrats have formed a task force behind Mr. Bennet to plan hearings and a legislative response. Republicans suspect political motivations.
Into that charged atmosphere, the I.R.S. is heightening its own push to ensure that nonprofits are sticking to their primary role as social welfare groups, an effort that began gingerly in 2011.