The Internal Revenue Service is in the news because of a growing scandal where it admitted targeting conservative non-profit groups and generally making their lives difficult.
That led me to think about my own experiences trying to start a conservative non-profit in which the IRS delayed approving my application. I was dismayed because I had been given several examples of approved non-profit applications that I used as a template. And yet, I still got a letter with 18 questions that needed to be answered before the IRS would even consider my application.
The IRS questioned how much I had reported for a salary; wanted me to explain how my activities would not be political; and requested assurances that my news site wouldn’t "discredit particular institutions and individuals on the basis of unsupported opinions …"
My initial reaction: Has the IRS ever seen Media Matters of America, a non-profit 501(c)(3), which describes itself as a center "dedicated to comprehensively monitoring, analyzing, and correcting conservative misinformation in the U.S. media." Media Matters is in the news today for its involvement in releasing "talking points" on how to defend the Department of Justice secretly seizing phone records from the Associated Press.
I've been a newspaper reporter since my senior year in high school. And when my newspaper, the Ann Arbor News, closed, I decided to start a non-profit news site with a conservative news perspective.
I started by going to a place in Ann Arbor that offers free guidance to people starting non-profits. I was given sample applications of approved non-profits and also got the applications of other similar non-profit news agencies. I also got a manual about how to go about doing the paperwork.
I specifically identified my news site on the application as having a conservative news judgment, because I had been advised that it would help explain to the IRS why there was a need for such an organization. There already was the (now former) website, Michigan Messenger, which was a liberal version of what I aspired to create. The void was the conservative alternative.
The letter I received from the IRS had 18 questions, many of which were never addressed in any of the materials I had been given or had seen on other applications that I used as a reference.
The IRS asked:
IRS: "You state the Chairman ... compensation. Indicate the duties to be performed and the number of hours each week that they will devote to such duties. State the basis for arriving at the amounts of such payment. Also, indicate who determined the compensation."
IRS: "Will your activities be limited to the study, research and assembly of materials and the presentation of an objective analysis to those interested in your media content including those who oppose it as well as those who favor it, and to the general public?"
IRS: "Will your media content discredit particular institutions and individuals on the basis of unsupported opinions and incomplete information about their affiliations?"
IRS: "Will you adopt an unbiased position and stick to the reasoned approach and avoid unsupported opinion?"
IRS: "Explain how your materials will substantially help a reader or listener in a learning process."
In the end, I never responded. The IRS wasn't the reason the news site didn't make it through its first year.
But as I look back today at the IRS scrutiny with the understanding that the agency has admitted to targeting conservative non-profits, I can't help but wonder if I was a victim of its admitted abuse of power.
Tom Gantert is the senior capitol correspondent for Michigan Capitol Confidential.