MAYBE THEY DESERVED SCRUTINY: Portion of webpage of Wetumpka Tea Party, now claiming about IRS inspection. Its a political action group.

  • MAYBE THEY DESERVED SCRUTINY: Portion of webpage of Wetumpka Tea Party, now complaining about IRS inspection. It campaigned against Obama.

The IRS imbroglio looks like a winner for the Republican Party. The agency, under the Obama administration, was, at least, disorganized and incompetent in reviewing applications for non-profit status by groups with obvious political orientation. Various IRS agents also may have worked improperly on personal agendas in slow-walking applications (not only for Tea Party groups, by the way, but also for gay rights-friendly groups, we’ve learned.)

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The sad fact is that this scandal seems likely to obscure the bigger scandal — the abuse of tax law to give tax preferential treatment to overtly political groups that are far more about politics than “social welfare,” as the tax code contemplates.

This story will be lost in the right-wing shout machine, but still:

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A conservative veterans group in California seeking nonprofit status bought radio ads backing a Republican congressional candidate. An Alabama Tea Party group, the Wetumpka Tea Party, trained get-out-the-vote workers to defeat Obama. An Ohio group organized Mitt Romney ralleys and distributed campaign literature.

Representatives of these organizations have cried foul in recent weeks about their treatment by the I.R.S., saying they were among dozens of conservative groups unfairly targeted by the agency, harassed with inappropriate questionnaires and put off for months or years as the agency delayed decisions on their applications.

But a close examination of these groups and others reveals an array of election activities that tax experts and former I.R.S. officials said would provide a legitimate basis for flagging them for closer review.

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“Money is not the only thing that matters,” said Donald B. Tobin, a former lawyer with the Justice Department’s tax division who is a law professor at Ohio State University. “While some of the I.R.S. questions may have been overbroad, you can look at some of these groups and understand why these questions were being asked.”

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