Although known for his comedy, Stephen Colbert has shown an aptitude for investigative journalism that surpasses many of the so-called “legitimate” news operations. His reporting on the IRS “scandal” is but the latest example.
Long before traditional news organizations began reporting on the abuses of political PACs and Super PACs, Colbert exposed the inappropriateness of political organizations being awarded 501(c)4 status. Following the lead of Karl Rove, Sarah Palin and hundreds of right wing groups, Colbert formed his own 501(c)4 called the Colbert Super PAC SHH! in 2011. By simply signing a few papers with the help of Republican attorney and former chairman of the Federal Elections Commission, Trevor Potter, Colbert legally declared his organization a non-profit and began collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars. According to Potter, he did not have to reveal the names of his donors. He did not have to adhere to spending limits. The only restriction was that he could not directly coordinate his expenditures with any candidates.
Interestingly, he never actually filed a 1024 form to request tax-exempt status from the IRS. (Of course, neither did many other Super PACs.) But now that the IRS is under investigation, Colbert realized that he, along with thousands of Tea Party groups, could file the form with the assurance that the IRS would not dare deny it while the IRS, itself, was under investigation. So Colbert filed the form under the new name Making-America-A-Better-Tea-Party-Patriot-9/12-Place-To-Constitution-America-Tea-Party-Nominally-Social-Welfare-Conservative-Political-Action-Tea-Party-Secret-Money-Liberty-I-Dare-You-To-Deny-This-Application-Of-America-Tea-Party.
Once again, Colbert has exposed the reality of 501(c)4s and the absurdity of our political system.
To be clear, the 501(c)4 designation was never intended to be used by political groups…not even by satirical groups such as Colbert’s. It was intended for use by genuine charities that serve the public interest and need to keep their donors anonymous so that the donors would not be hounded by thousands of other charities seeking funding.
But the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision unleashed a torrent of political groups claiming non-profit status so that corporations could keep their political donations anonymous. Not long afterward, the Tea Party movement began swamping the already understaffed IRS with thousands of requests for non-profit status. Is it any wonder, then, that the IRS chose to target these groups for extra scrutiny? What public good did the groups serve beyond providing cover for anonymous donors who wanted to use their money to attack political opponents and affect the outcome of elections?
Whether the IRS decision to request more information was politically-motivated is still unclear. But two things are clear: The IRS should scrutinize such groups, denying 501(c)4 status to those groups that are primarily political, like…say…the Tea Party. And Stephen Colbert is a unique talent.