WASHINGTON -- IRS exams found that nearly 3 out of 4 churches, charities, and other civic groups suspected of having violated restraints on political activity in the 2004 election did so, the agency said yesterday.
Most of the examinations that have concluded found a single, isolated incidence of prohibited campaign activity.
In three cases, however, the Internal Revenue Service uncovered violations egregious enough to recommend revoking the groups' tax-exempt status.
The majority of charities and churches followed the law, but the examinations found a ''disturbing" amount of political intervention in the 2004 elections, IRS Commissioner Mark Everson said.
''It's disturbing not because it's pervasive, but because it has the potential to really grow and have a very bad impact on the integrity of charities and churches," Everson said in an interview.
The tax agency looked at charities, churches, and other tax-exempt organizations referred to the IRS for potentially violating laws that bar them from participating in or intervening in elections, including advocating for or against any candidate.
Those referred to the IRS represent a tiny fraction of more than 1 million tax-exempt organizations organized under section 501(c)(3) of the tax law.
The IRS examined 110 organizations referred to the tax agency for potential violations; 28 cases remain open.
Among the 82 closed cases, the IRS found prohibited politicking and sent a written warning to 55 organizations and assessed a penalty tax against one group. Those organizations included 37 churches and 19 other organizations.
In the three additional cases in which the IRS recommended revoking tax-exempt status, none of the organizations were churches. The agency did not identify the three.
The IRS found tax violations unrelated to politics in five cases. Examinations of the 18 remaining groups did not turn up any wrongdoing.
In some cases, the IRS found flagrant violations of the law. In others, charities did not understand their obligations. Many activities fall into an ambiguous area that requires closer scrutiny of context and timing.
''There are very few places where you can draw bright lines," Everson said. ''People have to think about this."
Among the prohibited activities, the examiners found that charities and churches had distributed printed material supporting a preferred candidate and assembled improper voter guides or candidate ratings.