When CVFC, a conservative veterans' group in California, applied for tax-exempt status with the Internal Revenue Service, its biggest expenditure that year was several thousand dollars in radio ads backing a Republican candidate for Congress.
The Wetumpka Tea Party in Alabama sponsored training for a get-out-the-vote initiative dedicated to the "defeat of President Barack Obama" while the IRS was weighing its application.
And the head of the Ohio Liberty Coalition, whose application languished with the IRS for more than two years, sent its members emails about Mitt Romney campaign events and organized members to distribute Mr. Romney's presidential campaign literature.
Representatives of these organizations have cried foul in recent weeks about their treatment by the IRS, saying they were among dozens of conservative groups the agency unfairly targeted, harassed with inappropriate questionnaires and put off for months or years as it delayed decisions on their applications.
But a close examination of these groups and others reveals an array of election activities that tax experts and former IRS officials said would provide a legitimate basis for flagging them for closer review.
The IRS is already separately reviewing roughly 300 tax-exempt groups that may have engaged in improper campaign activity in past years, agency planning documents show. Some election lawyers said they believed that a wave of lawsuits against the IRS and intensifying congressional criticism of its application handling were intended in part to derail those audits, giving political nonprofit groups a freer hand during the 2014 campaign.
After the tax agency was denounced in recent weeks by Mr. Obama, lawmakers and critics for what they described as improper scrutiny of at least 100 groups seeking IRS recognition, The New York Times examined more than a dozen of them, most organized as 501(c)(4) "social welfare" groups under the tax code, or in some cases as 501(c)(3) charities.
According to the Campaign Media Analysis Group, none ran major election ad campaigns, the main activity of a small number of big-spending tax-exempt groups that emerged as major players in the 2010 and 2012 elections. But some organized volunteers, distributed pamphlets and held rallies leading up to the 2010 elections or the 2012 presidential election, as conservatives fought to turn out Mr. Obama.
A report issued this month by the Treasury Department's inspector general, J. Russell George, found that inappropriate criteria, including groups' policy positions, were used to flag some cases, and that specialists in the IRS's Cincinnati office, which reviews all tax-exemption requests, sometimes asked questions irrelevant to the application process. Agency officials have acknowledged that specialists inappropriately used keywords such as "Tea Party" and "Patriots" in vetting applications.
But some former IRS officials disputed several of Mr. George's conclusions, including his assertion that it was inappropriate to ask groups about donors, or whether leaders had plans to run for public office. While unusual, the former officials said, such questions are not barred if relevant to an application under consideration.
"The IG was as careless with terminology as the Cincinnati office was," said Marcus S. Owens, who headed the IRS' exempt organizations division until 2000. "Half of those questions have been found to be germane in court decisions."
IRS agents are obligated to determine whether a 501(c)(4) group is primarily promoting "social welfare." While such groups are permitted some election involvement, it cannot be an organization's primary activity. That judgment does not hinge strictly on the proportion of funds a group spends on campaign ads, but on a mix of facts and circumstances. "If you have a thousand volunteer hours and only spend a dollar, but those volunteers are to help a particular candidate, that's a problem," said Ohio State law professor Donald B. Tobin, a former attorney with the Justice Department's tax division.
Agents may examine when and for how long a group advocates policy positions, in part to see whether those positions are associated with a specific candidate, which can be relevant to the group's tax status, tax lawyers and former IRS officials said.
Agents may look at what a group publishes in print or on a website, whether it provides funds to other organizations involved in elections, or whether a group's officers are also employed by political parties.
"My experience has been that the agents immediately start Googling to see what the organization is doing outside of the application," said Kevin J. Shortill, a former tax law specialist in the IRS' exempt organization division. "And that explains why you get these requests for information like, 'Please print out your website and send it in.'"
In Alabama, the Wetumpka Tea Party organized a day of training for members and other activists in its region in the 2012 election run-up. The training was held under the auspices of the Adopt-a-State program, a nationwide effort that encouraged Tea Party groups in safely red or blue states to support Tea Party groups in battleground states working to get out the vote for Republicans.
Becky Gerritson, Wetumpka's president, said in an emailed statement that her group engaged "mostly in education on all sorts of topics," and the training day was one of a variety of events it held for "educational purposes."
Tom Zawistowski, president of the Ohio Liberty Coalition, another Tea Party group that has complained about IRS scrutiny, sent regular emails to members about Romney campaign events and organized protests around the state to "demand the truth about Benghazi" when Mr. Obama visited before the 2012 election. The coalition also canvassed neighborhoods, handing out Romney campaign "door hangers," Mr. Zawistowski said.
The IRS usually considers such activities as partisan. But when Mr. Zawistowski consulted his group's lawyers, he said, he came away understanding that the IRS was most concerned with radio or TV advertising. He said he believed other activities, such as distributing Romney campaign literature, would not raise concerns. "It's not political activity," he said.