In the past decade, people, companies and unions have dispensed more than $1 billion in dark money, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The very definition of that phrase, to many critics, epitomizes the problem of shadowy political influence: Shielded by the cloak of anonymity, typically wealthy interests are permitted to pass limitless pools of cash through nonprofits to benefit candidates or political initiatives without contributing directly to campaigns.
Such spending is legal because of a massive loophole. Section 501(c)(4) of the U.S. tax code allows organizations to make independent expenditures on politics while concealing their donors’ names — as long as politics isn’t the organization’s “primary activity.” The Internal Revenue Service has the daunting task of trying to determine when nonprofits in that category, known colloquially as C4s, violate that vague standard.
But the IRS’ attempts to police this class of nonprofits have almost completely broken down, a ProPublica investigation reveals. Since 2015, thousands of complaints have streamed in — from citizens, public interest groups, IRS agents, government officials and more — that C4s are abusing the rules. But the agency has not stripped a single organization of its tax-exempt status for breaking spending rules during that period. (A handful of groups have had their status revoked for failing to file financial statements for three consecutive years.)
Most cases do not even reach the IRS committee created to examine them. Between September 2017 and March 2019, the committee didn’t receive a single complaint to review according to one former and one current IRS employee who worked closely with the committee, even as at least 2,000 warranted its consideration. (The IRS disputes this.) The standards are almost as permissive when organizations apply for C4 status in the first place. In 2017, for example, the IRS rejected only three out of 1,487 applications.
* * *
The IRS’ abdication…