TIME Campaign Finance

IRS to Rubber-Stamp Tax-Exempt Status for Most Charities After Scandal

Internal Revenue Service Commissioner John Koskinen testifies during a hearing before the Government Operations Subcommittee of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee July 9, 2014 on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.
Internal Revenue Service Commissioner John Koskinen testifies during a hearing before the Government Operations Subcommittee of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee July 9, 2014 on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. Alex Wong—Getty Images

IRS head touts "efficiencies," but some groups fear fraud

Amid ongoing controversy over its scrutiny of nonprofits, the Internal Revenue Service has decided it will no longer screen approximately 80% of the organizations seeking tax-exempt charitable status each year, a change that will ease the creation of small charities while doing away with a review intended to counter fraud and prevent political and other noncharitable groups from misusing the tax code.

As of July 1, any group that pays a $400 fee and declares on a three-page online form that it has annual income of less than $50,000, total assets of less than $250,000 and is in compliance with the tax-code requirements of a charity will automatically be allowed to accept donations that are tax-deductible for the donors. Previously the groups had to fill out a detailed 26-page form, submit multiple supporting documents and provide a narrative description of their intended activities.

In an interview with TIME, IRS commissioner John Koskinen said the change would result in “efficiencies [that] will translate into a faster and better review” of bigger nonprofits, while clearing a 66,000-application backlog that has resulted in yearlong waits for groups seeking to start a charity. He said the new short form comes with 20 pages of instructions that make clear the requirements and limitations of being a charitable organization. Koskinen said that on the new short form, “people certify that they’ve gone through the instructions” under penalty of perjury.

The IRS rejected the idea of the new Form 1023-EZ in 2012, but using an expedited process this year, adopted the new procedure on the recommendation of a small team composed largely of frontline workers from the scandal-plagued division of exempt organizations, according to the IRS.

Some charitable groups worry the IRS has opened the door to abuse of tax-exempt status that will undermine the credibility of legitimate nonprofits, which are allowed to accept deductible donations under section 501(c)(3) of the tax code. “The Form 1023-EZ will increase opportunity for fraud,” said Alissa Hecht Gardenswartz, president of the National Association of State Charity Officials, and will make it harder “to protect charitable assets from fraud and abuse and to ensure that charitable assets are used for the purposes represented to the public.”

Others worry that charities, nominally barred from political activity, will come to serve the same purpose as the powerful nonprofit organizations known as 501(c)(4)s, whose donations cannot be deducted from taxes. This could give an added tax benefit to donors who have recently funneled hundreds of millions of dollars into independent political campaign spending. “What we’ll see is the so-called dark political money that flowed into the (c)(4) world is going to begin to flow into the (c)(3) world,” says Marcus Owens, who was the director of the exempt-organizations division at the IRS from 1990 to 2000, and is now in private practice at the law firm of Caplin & Drysdale.

The change will result in approximately 40,000 to 50,000 fewer (c)(3) applications for the exempt-organizations division to review each year, Koskinen says. The division, whose main office is in Cincinnati, has been at the center of the IRS scandal over alleged political scrutiny of right-wing 501(c)(4) groups under then-head Lois Lerner. That scandal centers on shortcuts the office developed to identify (c)(4) groups for further screening, including screens for groups with the names that suggested an association with the Tea Party movement.

The current legal interpretation of tax regulations allows so-called (c)(4)s to engage in political activities as long as they don’t spend more than 50% of their money on politics. In the 2010 Citizens United ruling by the Supreme Court, those same groups earned the ability to buy campaign ads in federal elections, and tax laws allowed them to conceal the identity of their donors. Since the ruling, the number of applications to become a (c)(4) has doubled, to around 1,000 per year, Koskinen says. In the 2012 campaign, (c)(4)s spent approximately $300 million dollars on politics, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Much of that money was spent attempting to motivate voters by advertising positions on specific issues that divide candidates. Owens, the former IRS official, says such activity can be cast under the mission of a (c)(3) devoted to educational, religious or other permitted activities, opening the possibility of deductible dark money. “The candidate links to the issue, and then the tax-exempt organization’s job is to find the voters and make sure they know the message and hear it loud and clear up to election day,” says Owens. “That’s what the (c)(4)s were doing, but that kind of activity could be just as easily in a (c)(3), but it would have the added advantage of having tax deductibility attached to it,” Owens says.

Democratic defenders of the IRS and the exempt-organizations office say both have been deprived of resources, as the overall IRS budget was cut by nearly $950 million, or around 7.8%, from 2010 to 2013, according to the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office. In an April 2014 report, the GAO found the cuts had been offset through savings and efficiencies, and by reducing, delaying or eliminating services. Koskinen says budget cuts didn’t play a role in the change in charity rules. “Obviously we are resource-constrained everywhere across the agency,” he says, but “we would want to do this anyway.”

While charity groups agree the old process for receiving tax-exempt status was too cumbersome, they and others worry that now organizations with no true charitable purpose will seek to become charities. “It’s easier to get tax-exempt status under 1023-EZ than it is to get a library card,” says Tim Delaney, president and CEO of the Council of Nonprofits. As a result, Delaney says, bad actors “will be able to operate in the name of the charity, and the IRS will never be the wiser because they’re not looking at the underlying documentation.”

Koskinen says such worries are overblown. “There’s a faith that if someone has been forced to do more paperwork they’re going to be less nefarious,” he says. He says that to prevent potential abuse, the IRS will take samples of applications to see what percentage are being filled out incorrectly, and will monitor the number of applications to see if it spikes suspiciously as a result of the new rules.

Owens says the IRS may not be able to differentiate between truly small charities and those that knowingly plan to grow beyond $50,000 in annual income. “I haven’t seen any mechanism where the IRS would be legally able to go after an organization that applied within the EZ process but then fortune shined on them,” Owens says. He also says that because of outdated software, the IRS won’t be able to track active charities back from its master file to their originating documents. An IRS official speaking on background acknowledged the software problem.

Charities complain that the change was made with little consultation from their representative lobbying organizations. The IRS sped its enactment this year by routing the change through the White House’s Office of Management and Budget for public comment under the Paperwork Reduction Act, rather than through the normal public-comment process at the IRS, nonprofit officials contend. “I just wish the IRS had used a more inclusive process from the beginning,” says Delaney of the Council of Nonprofits.

The IRS studied a simplified tax-exempt form in 2012 but rejected the idea. The group that looked at the idea, made up of outside lawyers and experts in tax-exempt organizations, said that filling out the longer form forced groups to better understand the requirements of being a charity. The group said it “may also be easier to embezzle from a small charity,” so they should be subject to more, not less, oversight.

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