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IRS agent who probed election nonprofit's views warned pro-lifers of speech 'limits' under Lerner

"You cannot force your religion or force your beliefs on somebody else," IRS Agent Sherry Wan told pro-life group in 2012. "You have to know your limits. You have to respect other people's beliefs."

Published: February 17, 2023 10:28pm

Updated: February 20, 2023 11:05pm

The same IRS agent who last year pried into an election education nonprofit's policy positions and language choices previously worked under IRS scandal figure Lois Lerner during the Obama administration, warning a pro-life group then seeking tax-exempt status that it must not "force" its religion or beliefs on others.

IRS Exempt Organizations Specialist Sherry Wan sent questions to election education nonprofit Adams, Baldwin, and Covey Foundation, Inc., (ABC) last year about its views on elections, the resumes of its educators, and how it would prevent "inflammatory language" from creeping into its educational activities.

Questions ABC received from Wan included:

  • "Do you have any policy/policies or guidance in place to avoid unsupported opinions or conclusions and inflammatory language in the activities?"
  • "Explain how you ensure that the contents presented in your educational activities are fair and unbiased facts that would permit an individual to form an independent opinion or conclusions based the facts presented."

Wan previously worked under Lerner, who directed the IRS Exempt Organizations Unit during the Obama administration, when the agency began targeting the Tea Party and other conservative groups in 2010 for intrusive scrutiny, effectively freezing them with lengthy audits.

After the politically motivated harassment was exposed in 2013, the Obama administration claimed to find the IRS actions "inexcusable." But after Lerner invoked her 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination to avoid testifying before Congress and the House cited her for contempt, the Obama Justice Department declined to pursue criminal charges. 

In May 2011, Wan sent questions to the nonprofit Pro-Life Revolution when it was applying for tax-exempt status. Some of the questions appear to be very similar to those ABC received, including who will conduct educational activities.

Other questions read: "Please explain how you assure: that the information you distribute or present to the public are NOT representing biased and unsupported opinions; that the information presented or distributed are with sufficiently full and fair exposition of the pertinent facts as to permit an individual or the public to form an independent opinion or conclusion."

In March 2012, Wan called the president of Pro-Life Revolution, Ania Joseph, and told her, "You cannot force your religion or force your beliefs on somebody else," according to a recording of the call posted online in 2013 by Alliance Defending Freedom.

"You have to know your boundaries," Wan said. "You have to know your limits. You have to respect other people's beliefs.

"You cannot use any kind of, you know, confrontation way, or to, or against other groups or devalue other groups, other people's beliefs." 

ADF noted at the time that Wan "inaccurately" explained that the pro-life organization was to "remain neutral on issues such as abortion," adding that Planned Parenthood has tax-exempt status.

Pro-Life Revolution received another letter from Wan in February 2013, in which she asked for more information "and attempted to apply a standard for tax exemption to Pro-Life Revolution that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit held to be unconstitutional in 1980," ADF said in a press release at the time.

After ADF, on behalf of Pro-Life Revolution, mentioned the updated court precedent, the nonprofit finally received tax-exempt status, almost two and a half years after submitting its application to the IRS.

ABC applied for tax-exempt status in September 2021 but learned only in August 2022 that the IRS had already closed the application in July 2022 on the purported grounds that ABC hadn't responded to questions from the agency. The questions were sent from the IRS in May with a response due date of June, but the foundation said it didn't receive the questions from the agency until September 2022.

When asked about the types of questions sent to ABC and other organizations seeking tax-exempt status, the IRS told Just the News on Thursday, "Federal law prohibits the IRS from commenting on individual or organizational tax matters." This statement came after the IRS requested more context following a question from Just the News about whether the agency asks educational organizations seeking tax-exempt status about how they fundraise.

Asked about Wan's history of targeted questions, Phill Kline, a founder of ABC, told Just the News on Saturday, "It just appears that she is of the impression that she regulates speech and thought," adding the "problem is that the IRS would allow her to continue to play that role."

Officials in positions like Wan's "don't operate in a vacuum, they have supervisors," said Kline, which prompts him to ask, "Who has approved this approach?"

If a nonprofit doesn't have tax-exempt status approved by the IRS, then "it's hard to raise funds for the effort," said Kline, "and their delay has harmed us."

Institute for Free Speech President David Keating told Just the News on Friday that the questions from the IRS "look fairly standard" and are not specifically targeted at ABC for its views. 

"At the same time, the questions on the resumes and on their views on certain issues or topics seem uncalled for," he said, adding that the standards for tax-exempt status "are vague."

Keating noted that the delay in ABC receiving letters from the IRS may be attributable to issues at the IRS mail room or the post office. The agency's denial of the nonprofit's application, he said, "was premature."

"There are long delays" at the IRS Exempt Organizations Unit, Keating said, which "harms groups seeking tax exemption applications."

ABC "could threaten to sue for a declaratory ruling on the application" if the IRS refused "to reopen the file for the application and reconsider the application," Keating said. 

Kline previously told Just the News that ABC had asked the IRS to reopen the application, and according to a cover letter sent to the IRS by the foundation's attorneys, the agency refused even though it had closed the application without deciding whether to grant the tax-exempt status.

The IRS and Wan didn't immediately respond to requests for comment on Friday.

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