Reports that conservative political groups were targeted for review by the IRS because they had "Tea Party," "9/12 Project" or "patriot" somewhere in their tax-exempt applications is a troubling story across party lines.

It also gives the Obama Administration, already beleaguered by the Benghazi story, yet another black eye.

In order to receive and keep a tax-exempt status, 501(c)(4) groups are not allowed to endorse a political candidate or a political party.

According to Lois Lemer, who heads the division of IRS that oversees tax-exempt groups, organizations applying for tax-exempt status were targeted because of their conservative political references. The agency required some of the groups to provide donor lists.

Last Friday's revelation did not surprise the 12 Republican lawmakers who complained in a letter to the IRS over a year ago that they had received accounts of harassment by the agency. The letter stated that the agency inquiries were "perceived to be excessive."

IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman obviously lied in March of 2012 when he told the House Ways and Means Committee that there was "absolutely no targeting" by the agency and that "that is the kind of back and forth that happens to people" who seek tax-exempt status. He has since retired.

According to Lemer, no high-level IRS officials knew about the practice and that it was initiated by low-level workers in Cincinnati and was not motivated by political bias. But the story deepened after Friday's initial report when a Treasury Department's Inspector General For Tax Administration (TIGTA) document revealed that the IRS was singling out the conservative groups as early as March 2010.

Friday's IRS apology that the targeting of conservative political groups during the 2012 election was "inappropriate" did not diffuse the matter, especially after after the agency denied that no high-level officials were involved.

Niger Innis, chief strategist for TheTeaParty.net, charged that the Obama administration has used the IRS as a political weapon and said the IRS claim that it is sorry "is not accepted."

Lawmakers, including Rep. Darrell Issa, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio are calling for congressional investigations. Even a top Democrat, Michigan Sen. Carl Levin, who chairs the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, said members have already been looking into the IRS's activities.

Sen. Rubio called the IRS's political targeting of select groups based on their political leanings "reprehensible."

Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the conservative American Center for Law and Justice, who has represented nearly 30 Tea Party groups investigated by the IRS, said he was outraged by letters sent to his clients and that the harassment was widespread and not isolated to Cincinnati.

"It was from coast to coast," said Sekulow. "Saying that this was, you know, low-level IRS employees - these weren't clerks. These were Internal Revenue Service agents that are trained in tax-exempt specialties."

This kind of scandalous activity, whereby the IRS uses its police powers for political purposes, is chilling and should be of great concern to every American citizen.

By Jim Zbick

jzbick@tnonline.com