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IRS at risk for targeting groups, watchdog says

GAO says lack of oversight raises concerns of bias

WASHINGTON — Lax oversight at the IRS increases the risk that political and religious groups could be unfairly targeted for audits, government investigators say in a report that raises concerns about an IRS division that has been under scrutiny for singling out conservative organizations.

The Government Accountability Office found no evidence that agents improperly audited any groups.

But a new GAO report released Thursday says poor oversight increases the risk that agents could select tax-exempt groups for audits based on their religious, educational, or political views.

There are 1.6 million tax-exempt groups in the United States, according to the GAO report. Fewer than 1 percent are audited each year, a process that can be costly and time-consuming for both the IRS and the group being audited.

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‘‘We first learned the IRS was unfairly singling out conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status,’’ said Representative Peter Roskam, Republican of Illinois, chairman of the Ways and Means oversight subcommittee.

‘‘This report exposes a new and more egregious frontier of potential targeting in the agency’s audit selection process,’’ Roskam said.

Roskam’s subcommittee held a hearing on the GAO report Thursday. At the hearing, IRS Commissioner John Koskinen noted that the GAO found no evidence that any group had been improperly selected for audit.

Koskinen said the IRS hired someone from outside the agency in 2013 who reviewed the audit selection criteria for the entire IRS.

‘‘He spent several months looking at the criteria used by more than 350 IRS compliance programs, and found no evidence of bias in any of them,’’ Koskinen said.

The IRS acknowledged in 2013 that agents had improperly singled out Tea Party and other conservative groups for extra scrutiny when they applied for tax-exempt status. The disclosure led to ongoing investigations by Congress, the Department of Justice, and the agency’s inspector general.

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‘‘We are continuing the work begun in 2013 to ensure that the management mistakes made in regard to the determination process for tax-exempt status do not happen again,’’ Koskinen told the subcommittee.

In 2014, the IRS completed a little more than 8,000 audits of tax-exempt groups.

More than 1,600 were selected based on referrals or complaints from the public, IRS employees, and other government agencies.