The Internal Revenue Service is auditing the NAACP, scrutinizing the nation's oldest civil rights group after its chairman gave a stinging criticism of the Bush administration in a speech this summer.
Julian Bond's July 11 comments at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's convention in Philadelphia chastised President Bush for being the first sitting president since Herbert Hoover not to address the group.
Bush declined the group's invitation to speak, while Democratic candidate Sen. John Kerry accepted.
In a letter dated Oct. 8, the IRS Tax Exempt and Government Division informed the NAACP's national office in Baltimore of the investigation.
The letter said the probe was limited to " ... whether or not your organization has intervened in a political campaign. ... "
Bond said yesterday that the audit was "an attempt to silence the NAACP" right before a tight presidential election.
"They are saying if you criticize the president we are going to take your tax exemption away from you," he said. "It's pretty obvious that the complainant was someone who doesn't believe George Bush should be criticized, and it's obvious of their response that the IRS believes this, too."
In a statement, IRS Commissioner Mark W. Everson said the agency could not comment on activities involving specific tax-exempt organizations, but he rejected Bond's claims.
"Any suggestion that the IRS has tilted its audit activities for political purposes is repugnant and groundless," the statement said.
The IRS letter states that Bond's speech "condemned the administration policies of George W. Bush on education, the economy and the war in Iraq."
The letter goes on to note that the NAACP's 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status prohibits "directly or indirectly participating or intervening in any political campaign on behalf of, or in opposition to, any candidate for public office."
Tool of both parties
Bruce Payne, a lecturer in public policy at Duke University, said administrations, both Democratic and Republican, have used the IRS to harass political opponents.
"Nixon had his enemies list, and their tax returns were scrutinized and more likely to be audited," he said.
Other organizations have come under IRS scrutiny recently. Last year, the IRS audited the National Education Association, after a conservative law firm filed complaints with the IRS that the nation's largest teachers union evaded taxes.
David Bositis, senior research analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, said such complaints have become more common this election year, from both conservative and liberal groups.
"There have been a lot of charges thrown around this year of tax-exempt organizations engaging in political activity," he said. "It's sort of a fact of life in this political year."
History of criticism
Still, the NAACP has a long history of criticizing presidents regardless of their party, Payne said.
"No one should be surprised that a civil rights organization is involved in political criticism," he said.
Bond said yesterday that he stands behind his remarks and that the organization would fight the IRS charges with an army of attorneys. The NAACP was supposed to reply today, but it received an extension from the IRS and has until Nov. 5 to respond to the audit.
"The allegation is that I criticized the president, and I plead guilty to that allegation," Bond said. "I cannot understand why criticism is confused with partisanship."
Still, NAACP delegates at the convention were clearly a partisan crowd, many of whom jostled for autographs from Kerry when he addressed the group.
Political observers say the high regard for Kerry is not uncommon among NAACP members, given that African-Americans overwhelmingly vote Democratic.
Yet NAACP critics have complained that the organization has become a mouthpiece of the Democratic Party and echoed those claims yesterday after learning about the IRS review.
'Dancing on fine line'
"You can be critical of the president, but when you criticize the party and intertwine it with voting ... as a nonprofit you are dancing on a fine line, and it appears they are dancing over it on a regular basis," said David Almasi, a spokesman for Project 21, a leadership group of black conservatives.
Bositis said he thinks the audit will only solidify the NAACP's constituency.
"On a political level, this is on some degree a compliment," he said. "It's because the NAACP has been so effective that there are people in the Bush administration that would like to take them out."