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Washington • A group of Senate Republicans led by Sen. Orrin Hatch called for a new investigation into the Internal Revenue Service on Thursday, focused on the improper release of information on nine conservative groups, including one that supported Hatch in his 2012 re-election campaign.
In December, the IRS gave the website ProPublica the applications of 31 politically active groups with tax-exempt status, but nine of them had not been approved or denied. By law, the applications are confidential documents until the IRS makes a determination.
"We believe that disclosure of applications that are still pending is a violation of the Internal Revenue Code and other related provisions, which could result in civil and criminal penalties," Hatch, R-Utah, wrote in a letter to the inspector general at the Treasury Department signed by all of the Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee.
ProPublica decided to release six of those nine applications, though it redacted financial information. One of them belonged to Freedom Path, a group with deep ties to Hatch that was created in January 2011 and spent at least $570,000 in support of the senator's campaign for his seventh and, as he has vowed, final term in office.
Freedom Path operated as a tax-exempt social welfare organization as its application with the IRS was pending. That designation allowed it to withhold any public information on its donors and delay disclosure of its board of directors.
The IRS has still not ruled on Freedom Path's application and the group feels that it was among those targeted for extra scrutiny in a scandal that has already resulted in President Barack Obama firing the tax agency's acting commissioner, Steven Miller.
Freedom Path has yet to respond to a request for comment.
The group's board is composed of a former Hatch employee and two political operatives who worked for the National Republican Senatorial Committee at a time when Hatch was the vice chairman. Freedom Path, which produced mailers and TV ads that supported Hatch and opposed his Republican challenger, also shared some vendors with the Hatch campaign, though they said no improper coordination took place.
Hatch's staff also said the senator was unaware of Freedom Path's problems with the IRS until it was reported in The Salt Lake Tribune and that the call for an expanded probe of the IRS is warranted in light of recent revelations.
The IRS is reeling from an inspector general report that shows tax agents inappropriately set aside the applications of tea party and other conservative groups because of their names and political positions and subjected them to inappropriate questions. The agency has acknowledged the activity and apologized for it.
The Republicans say the ProPublica release may show a pattern of political targeting.
The Hatch letter states: "Together, the IRS's recent actions have at least the appearance of injecting partisan politics into what is supposed to be an impartial process and causes us, and the American public, to question the integrity of the IRS administration and their ability to impartially uphold the nation's tax laws."
ProPublica asked the IRS why the unapproved applications were provided and an IRS spokeswoman warned that publishing the documents could be a felony. ProPublica decided that some of them had significant news value and decided its First Amendment rights protected the decision to publicize the reports.
In five of those applications, including that of Freedom Path, the group said it would not attempt to influence an election, even though the organizations did just that in the following months.
Freedom Path reported that its purpose was to support "nonpartisan causes that will help protect individual rights and liberties granted by the U.S. Constitution."
The group did produce mailers encouraging people to vote.
The IRS also sent ProPublica the applications for Americans for Responsible Leadership, Rightchange.com II, America is Not Stupid and A Better America Now.
The Hatch letter also noted that the Utah senator sent a letter to IRS leaders about a leak to news reporters of the confidential donors to the National Organization for Marriage, a group that opposes gay marriage. News reports disclosed that Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney donated $10,000 to the group.
The Finance Committee Republicans want the inspector general to also determine how this donor information was released.