Resolving a mystery made public a year ago when Congress began hearings on alleged political targeting by the Internal Revenue Service, the tax agency this week agreed to pay $50,000 to the nonprofit National Organization for Marriage for having illegally released the group’s list of donors from the 2008 election campaign.
The list of donors submitted to the government with the group’s mandatory 990 nonprofit reporting form, a list that by law must remain confidential, was released by an IRS clerk—inadvertently, according to the government—to an employee of the Human Rights Campaign, which backed the Obama reelection campaign. It was published during the 2012 race by The Huffington Post to show that the nonprofit had previously received $10,000 from an Alabama group with ties to Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign.
A district judge on June 3 ruled that sufficient evidence had not been presented to show that the leak was willful, but the IRS and the pro-marriage group subsequently reached an agreement.
"It has been a long and arduous process to hold the IRS accountable for their illegal release of our confidential tax return and donor list, which was ultimately given to our chief political rival by the recipient," said the group’s John Eastman, who joined with the ActRight Legal Foundation team in suing the IRS beginning in October 2013. “In the beginning, the government claimed that the IRS had done nothing wrong and that NOM itself must have released our confidential information. Thanks to a lot of hard work, we've forced the IRS to admit that they in fact were the ones to break the law and wrongfully released this confidential information," Eastman said on Tuesday.
NOM’s statement reported that the confidential information was released to a Boston gay activist named Matthew Meisel. An email surfaced showing him claiming to have a “conduit” that provided the leak. Meisel invoked his Fifth Amendment rights not to testify as to his source.
The IRS, the Human Rights Campaign and the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, which confirmed at a hearing last spring that it had investigated the incident, declined to comment to Government Executive.
But many of the details emerged in the June 3 opinion of Judge James Cacheris of Alexandria, Va. Meisel, according to testimony, approached the IRS requesting copies of NOM’s publicly available tax forms describing himself as a member of the media. IRS clerk Wendy Peters asked agency media relations specialist Peggy Riley whether Meisel was a member of the media, but apparently received no answer.
The clerk, who was not familiar with NOM, then printed out a copy of the NOM 2008 amended Form 990, schedule B, which contained a special tracking number watermarked.
Meisel, according to testimony, turned the papers over to Kevin Nix, campaign media director for the Human Rights Campaign, but when the documents were published in The Huffington Post, the watermarked numbers were removed.
TIGTA investigators were later able to “digitally un-redact the watermark” to restore the number, which allowed IRS administrators to identify Peters as the employee who printed out the document. According to the government’s case, Peters forgot to redact the names and addresses of NOM’s donors before sending the documents to Meisel, though NOM disputes this.
NOM still plans to press the IRS for reimbursement of its legal fees. “We’ll have a fight over that,” Eastman told Government Executive. He has asked Attorney General Eric Holder to grant Meisel immunity so that NOM could force him to disclose his source for the donor list. “We also want the heat to stay on DoJ, which has refused to grant immunity.” House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., has called for a special prosecutor.
“We urge the Congress to explore this issue with the appropriate government officials,” Eastman said. “It's imperative that all those who have engaged in corrupt practices and illegal acts in the IRS be identified and held accountable."