By Bernie Becker - 05/29/13 07:03 PM EDT
An organization representing 25 Tea Party and conservative groups on Wednesday sued the Obama administration over the Internal Revenue Service's targeting of conservative groups.
The American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), which filed the suit, said the groups were victims of “comprehensive, pervasive, invidious and organized” targeting and were denied their First and Fifth Amendment rights.
The groups are seeking an unspecified amount of “compensatory and punitive damages” against the defendants, who include the IRS, Attorney General Eric Holder and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew.
Steven Miller, the former acting IRS chief, and two other IRS officials central to the current uproar – Lois Lerner and Holly Paz – were all personally named in the suit, which was filed on Wednesday in a Washington federal court.
“The only way to stop this flagrant and arrogant abuse of our clients’ rights is to file a federal lawsuit, which we have done,” Sekulow said in a statement. “The lawsuit sends a very powerful message to the IRS and the Obama Administration – including the White House: Americans are not going to be bullied and intimidated by our government.”
According to the lawsuit, the 25 groups – hailing from 15 states –had their application for tax-exempt status “unlawfully delayed and obstructed” for reasons solely having to do with their ideology.
The vast majority of those groups were seeking tax-exempt 501(c)(4) status, a designation that allows organizations to keep their donors private.
The lawsuit says that 13 of the 25 groups in the suit were granted tax-exempt status, though after some delay. Ten of the organizations still have their application pending, and the final two withdrew. Sekulow said earlier Wednesday on MSNBC that he expects another dozen groups to join the lawsuit.
ACLJ’s lawsuit also asks for a permanent injunction that would prohibit the federal agencies and officials from discriminating against the 25 groups “for disparate treatment and particular scrutiny based on the unconstitutional criteria of political viewpoint or association.”
A Treasury audit that detailed the extra scrutiny the IRS gave to Tea Party groups said applicants for tax-exempt status had to wait years in some cases for a ruling from the agency, and were asked unnecessarily invasive questions.
The audit also found that the IRS started giving added attention to Tea Party groups in 2010.
Lerner directed a Cincinnati office to change the screening criteria that singled out Tea Party groups in June 2011. But IRS staffers in Ohio found the replacement criteria too broad, and changed it again in January 2012.
Lew and other senior Treasury and White House officials have said the only found out about the full extent of the targeting this year.
Miller and the former IRS commissioner, Doug Shulman, were told about the extra scrutiny in 2012, and have been sharply criticized by lawmakers for not clearing up the record on Capitol Hill.
Miller has said that the extra attention the IRS gave to Tea Party groups was clearly wrong, but that the scrutiny was not politically motivated.
ACLJ’s lawsuit is just the latest legal effort in the controversy surrounding the IRS, and comes as the agency’s treatment of conservative groups is set to heat up again on Capitol Hill next week.
The conservative group True the Vote has also sued the Obama administration, while the watchdog Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington filed to force the IRS to reconcile differences between the laws and regulations overseeing tax-exempt groups.
Some Democrats have noted that the law says that 501c4 groups should exclusively be devoted to social welfare, but that IRS regulations allow up to half of those organizations’ work to be political. That discrepancy, some Democrats say, was part of the issue in the current targeting case.
The House is scheduled to hold two hearings in its first two days back next week, featuring the first testimony from the new acting IRS chief, Danny Werfel, and from some of the conservative groups who were targeted.
This story was updated at 3:34 p.m.