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SPOTLIGHT
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Equal treatment

Published on -6/26/2013, 9:45 AM

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When the IRS' scandalous behavior of targeting certain groups for exhausting tax-status reviews was unveiled back in May, we cautioned Congress not to leap to too many conclusions.

The advice fell on deaf ears. After all, it was tea party and other conservative groups that appeared to be unfairly singled out as they sought tax-exempt status for themselves. Apologies were offered, resignations accepted, practices halted, and a multitude of congressional hearings began taking place.

All because 75 of some 300 groups were flagged by looking for terms such as "patriot" or "tea party" in their names.

We had suggested there were 225 organizations that also received scrutiny -- and we weren't aware what type of groups they were. It didn't stop conservative lawmakers from lambasting the IRS, the White House and President Barack Obama for all sorts of nefarious deeds based on what was known at the time.

Turns out others terms were used by IRS workers to flag groups that might have been attempting to skirt U.S. tax laws and avoid paying what was due the government. Terms such as "progressive," "Occupy," "Israel," "medical marijuana," "newspaper entities," "paying national debt," "green energy" and "healthcare legislation." Nary a one of which sounds as if the group might be on the conservative side of the political spectrum.

Not that we're hearing any legislators backtracking on the matter, nor Fox News apologizing for stirring up a frenzy over nothing.

We wouldn't hold our breath for either of those scenarios. Not when so many other questionable practices are being uncovered at the Internal Revenue Service. The IRS could stand a serious house-cleaning in order to regain the trust of the American people.

But as far as its practice of making politically active groups jump through hoops before exempting them from tax obligations, the IRS should stay the course.

Ever since the ridiculous Citizens United decision emanating from the U.S. Supreme Court that allowed unlimited and anonymous political spending, the number of groups applying for so-called 501(c)(4) status has ballooned. The IRS receives 5,000 applications per month by politically active organizations seeking permission not to pay taxes. It is up to that bureaucracy to ensure the groups are focused on "social welfare" -- whatever that means -- and not political activity as their primary activity. The distinction is vague but critical, as it results in millions of dollars either going into the U.S. Treasury or not. The status also results in whether the groups have to make their donor lists publicly available.

That the IRS is targeting groups on the right, left and center is as it should be. We wouldn't stoop to saying "We told you so," but it does appear all the wailing and gnashing of teeth regarding tea party groups being singled out was a tad premature.

Editorial by Patrick Lowry

plowry@dailynews.net

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