NAACP leadership continued to denounce an Internal Revenue Service audit of the Baltimore-based civil rights group yesterday, while three members of Congress challenged the IRS to drop the investigation.
A letter sent yesterday to IRS Commissioner Mark W. Everson by three House Democrats - Charles B. Rangel of New York, Pete Stark of California and John Conyers Jr. of Michigan - demanded that Everson "publicly, specifically and immediately repudiate the recent actions of the IRS taken against the NAACP."
The IRS is auditing the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People after its chairman, Julian Bond, criticized the Bush administration in a speech at its annual convention in July.
An Oct. 8 letter notified the NAACP of the inquiry, saying Bond's speech "condemned the administration policies of George W. Bush on education, the economy and the war in Iraq."
NAACP President Kweisi Mfume and Bond said yesterday that they couldn't recall the NAACP ever being audited for criticizing a politician. They called the inquiry a politically calculated attack on free speech that came just days before the Nov. 2 election.
The Democratic congressmen agreed, stating in their letter:
"First, it is obvious that the timing of this IRS examination is nothing more than an effort to intimidate the members of the NAACP, and the communities the organization represents, in their get-out-the-vote effort nationwide."
In addition, Rangel offered a separate statement urging President Bush to "call off the dogs at the IRS."
Bond, a longtime civil rights activist, stands by the denunciations of the administration that he hurled during the opening event of the 95th annual NAACP convention in Philadelphia.
Bush turned down the NAACP's invitation to speak at the convention. Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry accepted. NAACP officials said Bush was the first sitting president since Herbert Hoover not to address the group.
During Bond's July 11 convention speech, he criticized Bush's civil rights record, the Iraq war, the high black unemployment rate and the decline of educational opportunities for blacks.
"Bush chose Martin Luther King's birthday this year to unilaterally elevate Charles Pickering to the federal bench in the face of Pickering's hostility to civil rights and leniency to cross-burners," Bond told the audience.
He prefaced his remarks with a reminder that the nation's oldest civil rights group is nonpartisan, yet has a long history of critiquing elected officials.
The NAACP's tax-exempt status - the same as that held by charities and religious groups - allows contributors to make tax-deductible contributions but restricts its lobbying efforts.
If the IRS investigation determines that the NAACP intervened in a political campaign, the most severe penalty would be the loss of its tax-exempt status, although the group could reapply, said Sarah Ingram, deputy commissioner of the Tax Exempt and Government Entities Division of the IRS.
She said that in April, the IRS sent letters reminding charities that they are forbidden to engage in political activity, a practice of the agency in every general election since 1992. In addition, the IRS launched a program this summer that scrutinized more than 100 nonprofits concerning possible campaign activity, she said.
Ingram declined to comment on whether the NAACP was among the 100 or so nonprofits examined. She said the group was a "mix of organizations in a cross-section of the community."
Mfume said the NAACP will respond to the IRS by the deadline next week. Bond said the fund-raising impact could be significant, however.
"At the very least, you would have to think that people who give us relatively large sums of money with the expectation of a break on their income taxes would be chastened by this, and would be a little less likely to do so," Bond said.