Friday, June 13, 2014

Z Street Decision Will Force IRS To Disclose How It Reviews – And Delays - Tax-Exempt Applications



I am reading things that make me wonder what is going on at the IRS. It repetitively appears that the agency – or at least influential partisan players – think that the job of the IRS is to take sides in political issues.

I am looking at Z Street v Shulman. It is a Court decision from the District of Columbia. There are some interesting points in here, embalmed in yawn-inducing legalese.


Let’s talk about this case.

Z Street is a non-profit corporation. It comes out of Pennsylvania, was organized in 2009 and immediately applied for tax-exempt status. Its purpose is to educate the public about Zionism; about facts on the formation of the Jewish state; and about Israel’s right to refuse to negotiate with terrorists.

We know about that the IRS instituted a policy of 501(c)(4) suppression prior to the 2012 presidential election. The 501(c)(4)s are a different animal from a (c)(3), the “traditional” charity. A (c)(4) may engage in an unlimited amount of lobbying, as long as it stays within the issues for which it was organized. If someone felt strongly about blue M&Ms, for example, I suppose that someone could organize a (c)(4) and lobby nonstop – as long as they stayed within the issues concerning blue M&Ms. A (c)(4) can also engage in some partisan political activity, as long as it does not become its primary activity. There is a price however for this freedom to till so close to political soil: deductions to a (c)(4) are not deductible.

Contrast that to a (c)(3), contributions to which are tax-deductible. As a trade-off, there are severe restrictions on lobbying activities of a (c)(3).

Anyway, Z Street applies for (c)(3) status. It wants that tax-deductible status, understandably. It is possible that – in the future – it will spin-off a (c)(4). 

Here are some quick dates:

·       12/29/09 - applies for exempt status with IRS
·       5/15/10 – IRS send a letter requesting additional information
·       6/7/10 – Z Street provides additional information to the IRS
·       7/10/10 – Z Street’s attorney tracks down the IRS person (Dianne Gentry) handling the file.  Agent Gentry tells the attorney that she has two reservations:

o   Z Street is engaged in “advocacy” activities that are not permitted under Section 501(c)(3)
o   The IRS has special procedures for applications from organizations whose activities relate to Israel, and whose positions with respect to Israel contradict the current policies of the U.S. government. She further stated, “these cases are being sent to a special unit in the D.C. office to determine whether the organization’s activities contradict the Administration’s public policies."

I am stunned.

I immediately pick up on the issue of a (c)(3) and advocacy. I expected that issue, and frankly, I wonder why Z Street didn’t organize a (c)(4) instead.

But “special procedures” and the “Administration’s” current policies? My tax-exempt application is to be judged on whether the Administration “likes” me and whether I say “politically correct” things? Good grief, bring on Kristallnacht.

Z Street brought a lawsuit. They alleged that the IRS maintains a special policy when it comes to Israel and to (c)(3)s whose stance does not agree with the Obama Administration, and that such applications are subject to special procedures not applied to other organizations. 


What does Z Street want?

·       A declaration that policy is unconstitutional, and
·       An injunction forcing the IRS to disclose the policy and barring the IRS from employing the same.

The IRS stalled this thing almost long enough to put your kid through college. I am disturbed that the IRS core argument seems to be “we can do whatever we want.” Here are their arguments:

(1)  The Anti-Injunction Act

The AIA was first enacted in 1867, and states that ”no suit for the purpose of restraining the assessment or collection of any tax shall be maintained in any court by any person, whether or not such person is the person against whom such tax is assessed.”

The IRS argued that the AIA barred the Court from granting injunctive relief.

(2)  Code Section 7428

Code Section 7428 already provides remedy for organizations that seek to challenge IRS determination of their (c)(3) status.

(3)  The IRS also argued that the case should be dismissed on “sovereign immunity” grounds.

The Court goes to work:

(1)  The D.C. Circuit had already decided a case (Cohen) rejecting  that the AIA’s “assessment and collection” language bars any and all lawsuits that might ultimately impact revenue to the Treasury. It has to be so, otherwise one could pass virtually any law and render it unreachable by calling it a “tax.”

(2)  By its terms, Section 7428 applies when there is controversy concerning qualification of an organization as a (c)(3). The only available remedy under Section 7428 is a “declaration with respect to … initial qualification or continuing qualification.”

The Courts points out that Z Street is not asking the Court for (c)(3) qualification. Rather it is asking the Court to force the IRS to follow a “constitutionally valid process” – nothing more and nothing less.

(3)  The Administrative Procedure Act expressly waived sovereign immunity for lawsuits such as this. The APA waives sovereign immunity for suits for nonmonetary damages that allege wrongful action by an agency or its officers or employees.

The Court points out the obvious: that is exactly what Z Street is doing.

Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson observed:

Defendant struggles mightily to transform a lawsuit that clearly challenges the constitutionality of the process that the IRS allegedly employs when it determines the tax-exempt status of certain organizations into a dispute over tax liability as a means of attempting to thwart this action’s advancement.”

In legalese, this is like being punched in the face.

The Court decided that the Z Street’s lawsuit could proceed. After the IRS files its response, the case will go to discovery. The IRS will have to pony up what it has been doing with tax-exempt applications these last few years. Anticipate that Z Street attorneys will seek depositions from other groups similarly treated by the IRS.  

Good.

If proven, this type of behavior by the IRS is thuggish and needs to be punished. People need to lose their jobs, if not their freedom for a while. Perhaps we could build a Lois Lerner wing at a prison somewhere. Perhaps somewhere near the District of Columbia so these people would not have to travel far.

Why do I say this? Our taxation system relies – to an overwhelming extent – on voluntary compliance. The function of the IRS is to administer and collect taxes and process records of the same. Whatever our political stance, we can have common ground on the assessment and collection of tax. We can all hate the IRS equally.

If we disagree on tax law, however, we take that disagreement into the legislative arena. Allow elected representatives to hash it out. At least the representatives have to run for reelection occasionally, so there is some chance for an accounting of their decisions and actions. This is greatly preferable – and healthier for our system of governance – than partisan berserkers bending whatever lever of government they can access to impose their dogma du jour.

Remember: there will be a future White House with very different attitudes and values than the present one. If this behavior goes unpunished, those now in power will then be out of power, and it will be their views and causes that will be handed to the tender mercies of the partisan berserkers then in power.

Don’t come crying then.

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