by Kim Barker, ProPublica.
Five conservative dark money groups active in 2012 elections previously told tax regulators that they would not engage in politics, filings obtained from the IRS show.
The best known and most controversial of the groups is Americans for Responsible Leadership, an Arizona-based organization. Not long after filing an application to the IRS pledging — under penalty of perjury — that it would not attempt to sway elections, the group spent more than $5.2 million, mainly to support Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
The California Fair Political Practices Commission has accused Americans for Responsible Leadership of “campaign money laundering” for failing to disclose the origin of $11 million it funneled to a group trying to influence two state ballot propositions.
The other groups that filed applications for IRS recognition of tax-exempt status saying they wouldn’t engage in politics are Freedom Path, Rightchange.com II, America Is Not Stupid and A Better America Now.
Much hangs on these applications, all of which are still pending. The tax code allows social welfare nonprofits to engage in political activities as long as public welfare, not politics, is their primary purpose. If the IRS ultimately decides not to recognize these groups, they could have to disclose their donors.
Such decisions, along with IRS’ oversight of social welfare nonprofits overall, have come under increasing scrutiny as these groups have assumed an ever larger role in elections, pouring an unprecedented $322 million into the 2012 cycle.
ProPublica has documented how some social welfare nonprofits underreport their political activities, characterizing them to the IRS as “education” or “issue advocacy.” Other groups have popped up, spent money on elections and then folded before tax regulators could catch up with them.
The IRS sent the applications submitted by the five groups to ProPublica in response to a public records request, although the agency is only required to supply these records after groups are recognized as tax-exempt. (ProPublica also obtained the pending application of Crossroads GPS, the dark money group launched by GOP strategist Karl Rove that spent more than $70 million on the 2012 elections, which we wrote about separately.)
The IRS confirmed that none of the groups had been recognized as tax-exempt and referred ProPublica to its earlier response about Crossroads’ application. In that email, the IRS cited a law that says publishing unauthorized tax returns or return information is a felony punishable by up to five years in prison or a fine of up to $5,000, or both.
A lawyer for Americans for Responsible Leadership, Jason Torchinsky, cited the same law in an email.
“If you willfully to (sic) print or publish in any manner any information about Americans for Responsible Leadership that you do not lawfully possess — and which may or may not be complete — you will be doing so in violation of (the law) and we will not hesitate to report such unlawful publication to the appropriate law enforcement officials,” Torchinsky wrote.
The other groups for which ProPublica obtained IRS applications did not respond to calls or emails for comment.