An excellent story yesterday from the Colorado Independent's Susan Greene takes a follow-up look at a group called the Citizen Awareness Project, a 501(c)(4) interest group under the federal tax code that was championed as an example of so-called "IRS abuse" of conservative organizations seeking tax exempt status last year:
The conservative group Cory Gardner has held up as a victim of what his party deems an IRS “witch hunt” seems to have been scrutinized not for its politics, as the Congressman repeatedly claimed, but rather because of legitimate questions about its nonprofit application.
Gardner made headlines last year when he posted on his congressional website a March 26, 2013 letter from the Internal Revenue Service to a Colorado-based conservative organization that was seeking 501(c)(4) non-profit, tax-exempt status. The four-page letter to a group whose name Gardner’s office redacted asked for “more information before we can complete your consideration of your application for exemption.”
Gardner denounced the IRS’s follow-up questions as excessive and “thuggish” – proof, he said, that the agency was unfairly targeting right-wing groups…
Outside conservative media distribution networks and AM talk radio, the so-called "IRS scandal" has been generally debunked. Investigations have shown that, despite insistence to the contrary, plenty of left-leaning 501(c)(4) groups, received the exact same request for additional documentation that conservative groups received. Later reviews confirmed that progressive groups were being subjected to the same degree of scrutiny, and that investigating Republicans had requested the scope of inquiry be restricted to right-wing organizations.
With all of this in mind, it should come as no surprise when the Independent's Susan Greene reports that the Citizen Awareness Project wasn't the creation of political neophytes:
Citizen Awareness Project is a textbook dark money group. Shortly after it was founded in 2012, it injected more than $1 million of its anonymous money into campaigns to defeat Democrats and Democratic causes in Colorado. Those efforts called into question the group’s purported public research and education activities – the mission it stated in applying as a tax-exempt social welfare group.
The group was represented by Charlie Smith, the former chairman of the College Republican National Committee, according to the Center for Public Integrity. Smith also is reported to have founded Solutions 2012, a pro-Newt Gingrich super PAC.
Public documents suggest that Smith chaired Citizen Awareness Project as part of his role at the Denver firm Zakhem Law LLC, run by John Zakhem who, according to open-government Sunlight Foundation, “served as an attorney for the state Republican Party and has helped the GOP play the campaign money game from every angle over the years.”
Far from a mom-and-pop charity doing some political advocacy on the side, Cory Gardner's victim of "Democratic IRS oppression" was nothing more than a shingle hung by high-level Republican usual suspects for the express purpose of affecting the 2012 elections. That's exactly what the IRS needs to have oversight over, isn't it?
Three tax lawyers interviewed by The Independent say it’s typical –- and the IRS’s due diligence – to ask such questions in the application process, especially of a group that spent more than $1 million on political campaigns shortly after being founded.
Gardner…decried the letter as a form of harassment, proof of Democratic partisanship in denying tax-exempt status to conservative groups. But the IRS is obligated to investigate political nonprofit group applications, and that year it investigated more left-leaning groups than it did right-leaning groups, a fact buried under the conspiracy-theory-driven outrage on the right that surrounded the investigations of Tea Party-aligned groups. [Pols emphasis]
Bottom line: not only did the IRS controversy fizzle, it left unanswered questions about who exactly these grandstanding Republican politicians like Gardner were defending. This was no "grassroots" organization, it was a shell for a million dollars in electioneering money, set up by usual suspect Republican lawyers, spent in the same election cycle in which the group was founded, never to be meaningfully heard from again. Today, the group's domain name has expired, and there is no record of the organization having ever completed its IRS application.
Hopefully, somebody will revisit this business with Gardner between now and November, because there are questions he should answer–or even in the most charitable presumption, details Gardner should know before he holds this group up again as anybody's "victim."