WASHINGTON—The Internal Revenue Service is reviewing the tax-exempt status of the nation’s oldest civil rights organization, saying criticism of President Bush at the NAACP’s national convention in July may have violated rules against partisan activity.
In a letter dated Oct. 8, the IRS said it had “received information” that NAACP Chairman Julian Bond “condemned the administration policies of George W. Bush on education, the economy and the war in Iraq” in a July 11 speech.
The IRS asked who authorized Bond’s speech and sought an accounting of all expenses for the Philadelphia convention.
Bond called the investigation a political move meant to deter the NAACP from its traditional role of registering and turning out black voters on Election Day, something he said has not been called into question over decades of such activity.
“We intend to fight this with every resource we have,” Bond said.
The IRS does not disclose its investigations, but the NAACP scheduled a news conference for today on the subject.
Asked why he waited three weeks to announce the probe, five days before the election, Bond said he had to first inform his board of directors about the action.
IRS Commissioner Mark Everson said in a statement that he cannot comment on any particular case but denied that politics is involved in the agency’s enforcement decisions.
“Any suggestion that the IRS has tilted its audit activities for political purposes is repugnant and groundless,” he said.
Bond began his speech at the July convention by saying, “The race is on! The gloves are off! We are in a fight for our lives, and we are here to commit to winning it!”
He went on to criticize the president’s policies on education, civil rights and the Iraq war and noted that Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry had accepted the group’s invitation to speak, while Bush had declined.
“The differences between the candidates this year are neither incremental nor inconsequential,” he said.
Tax law prohibits charities organized under section 501(c)(3) from taking sides in political campaigns. The law restricts these organizations because donations are tax-deductible for the donor and in effect are subsidized by the government.
Frances Hill, an authority on non-profit groups at the University of Miami Law School, called it “amazing” that the IRS would audit a group based on a public speech.
“Usually you would look for some activity other than disagreeing with policies,” she said.