WASHINGTON — The Internal Revenue Service has informed the NAACP that it is investigating whether the civil rights organization improperly "intervened in a political campaign" when it posted on its website a speech by Chairman Julian Bond that condemned the Bush administration's policies.
The IRS sent a letter Oct. 8, less than a month before Tuesday's election, to the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People informing it of the investigation. The group has until Nov. 5 to respond.
"I think what's at issue is our right to criticize the president of the United States," Bond said Thursday. "The IRS is saying that because I criticized the president's education policies, his economic policies and his war policies that somehow I placed the tax exemption for the NAACP at risk."
Bond, 64, a college professor at the University of Virginia and American University, said the timing of the inquiry raised questions about the administration's motives.
President Bush's relationship with the NAACP, the nation's oldest and largest civil rights organization, has been contentious. He appeared before the group as a candidate for president in 2000, but has rejected all invitations since.
Asked about the IRS investigation, the Bush campaign referred all questions to the agency, which issued a statement from IRS Commissioner Mark W. Everson. Without mentioning the NAACP investigation by name, Everson denied that the agency was politically motivated.
"Law enforcement decisions at the IRS are made without regard to political considerations," Everson said.
At issue is a speech Bond delivered July 11 at the NAACP's 95th annual convention in Philadelphia.
The speech touched on Bond's personal history, the history of racial discrimination in America and the Bush administration.
"The NAACP has always been nonpartisan, but that doesn't mean we're noncritical. For as long as we've existed, whether Democrats or Republicans have occupied the White House, we've spoken truth to power," Bond said in the keynote address.
He then went on criticize the administration's positions on affirmative action, the war in Iraq, civil rights and the economy. "They write a new constitution for Iraq and ignore the Constitution here at home," he said.
"If a president lies about having an affair, they say, 'Impeach him!' If a president lies about going to war, they say, 'Reelect him!' " Bond continued.
He spoke about the 2000 election, as he had in previous addresses to the group.
"We must guarantee the irregularities, suppression, nullification and outright theft of black votes that happened on election day 2000 never, ever happen again," he said.
Bond, a former Georgia state lawmaker, also called on the group's members to vote this year. "You cannot win this race by ignoring race," he said. "We know that if whites and nonwhites vote in the same percentages as they did in 2000, Bush will be re-defeated by 3 million votes."
The NAACP could lose its tax-exempt status or face a fine if the IRS decides it engaged in political activity.
Under the law, nonprofit groups cannot endorse candidates, contribute money or raise funds for them or "distribute statements for or against a particular candidate."
Even encouraging people to vote for a particular candidate "on the basis of nonpartisan criteria" violates tax laws. The federal tax code also says that organization leaders cannot make "partisan comments" at official events.
But Bond said he was careful in his speech not to explicitly tell NAACP members whom to vote for. "We understand what the tax laws are. We understand what nonpartisan means. We never thought it meant don't be critical."
He accused the Bush administration of using the IRS as "a political arm of the Bush campaign."
Everson, the IRS chief, said, "The IRS follows strict procedures involving the selection of tax-exempt organizations for audit and resolution of any complaints about such groups.
Career civil servants, not political appointees, make these decisions in a fair, impartial manner.
"Any suggestion that the IRS has tilted its audit activities for political purposes is repugnant and groundless," he said.
Bond said he spent several days writing the 45-minute NAACP speech, which he delivered on the opening night of the convention.
It was the sixth address he has given to the national convention since he became chairman in 1998.
He compared the chairman's annual keynote speech to a State of the Union address, except it was more about the state of racial affairs.
The group distributed copies of the speech at the convention and posted it on its website, where it remained until the organization received notice of the IRS inquiry.