ProPublica had requested the applications of 67 nonprofits, and the IRS office in Cincinnati sent applications or documentation of 31 groups to the publication, described on its website as "an independent, non-profit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest." Nine of them had not yet been approved, which means, according to federal law, they were not supposed to be made public. ProPublica published six of them anyway, with the financial information redacted.
The materials were sent from the Cincinnati IRS office to ProPublica's New York address on November 28, 2012. The cover letter was signed by Cindy Thomas, manager for exempt organizations determinations.
"Dear Sir or Madam," the letter began. "This is in response to your November 14, 2012 request for copies of (see attachments). Enclosed are the copies you requested."
"If you have any questions, please call us at the telephone number shown at the heading of this letter." The contact person listed was Sophia Brown at 879-829-5500. ProPublica said it tried to contact both Thomas and Brown for the article, but was unable to reach them. They did contact IRS officials by e-mail, however, and were told the materials should not have been sent and their publication would be in violation of federal law.
"It has come to our attention that you are in receipt of application materials of organizations that have not been recognized by the IRS as tax-exempt," wrote IRS spokeswoman Michelle Eldridge. Eldridge warned that "publishing unauthorized returns or return information is a felony punishable by a fine of up to $5,000 and imprisonment of up to five years, or both."
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