Marcus Owens is a former Internal Revenue Service official and attorney, currently a partner with D.C. firm Caplin and Drysdale. A career civil servant from 1976-2000, Owens has followed his time in the IRS’s controversial Exempt Organizations office by sitting on the board of the Better Business Bureau’s heavily criticized “Wise Giving Alliance,” by representing left-wing clients in complaints against conservative groups, and by serving as an expert witness on behalf of accused terrorist financiers in charitable organization-related cases. His services became a subject of litigation in 2009.
In 2000, Owens stepped down as director of the IRS Exempt Organizations division and immediately passed through the revolving door to Caplin & Drysdale’s exempt organizations practice. To the extent the firm has political alignment, it appears to tilt towards Democrats and the left—firm employees have given 89 percent of their reportable political contributions to federal candidates to Democrats. (Owens’s only identifiable candidate contribution went to Anthony Brown, then-Democratic candidate for Lieutenant Governor of Maryland, in 2006.) Owens’s firm boasts of its work on behalf of liberal groups Planned Parenthood Federation of America and Common Cause, and Department of Labor filings show the firm takes significant work from trade unions—in 2013, that included $235,726 from the SEIU.
Owens’s public commentaries and some of his work suggest that he is motivated at least in part by liberal partisanship. In the mid-2000s, Owens represented a church in Pasadena, California that was investigated by the IRS for supporting Democrat John Kerry by allegedly making improper sermons against then-President Bush’s policies. By July 2011, with Democrats safely ensconced in the Executive Branch, Owens represented a group of Ohio ministers calling on Lois Lerner—Owens’s successor at the IRS and later the key figure in the alleged targeting of “tea party” groups for disproportionate scrutiny in tax exemption applications—to ramp up prosecutions of churches for political sermons.
Owens has close ties with Clergy VOICE, a group of 18 liberal Ohio ministers that had no other identifiable legal existence. (Its website is defunct, and it has engaged in no media-reported activity since it filed a 2012 IRS complaint, authored by Owens, against a conservative state legislative group.) The group appears to have come together for no purpose other than to cause tax nuisances for conservative and not-sufficiently-liberal nonprofit organizations: Its two most prominent activities were an Owens-authored complaint against the American Legislative Exchange Council and a complaint against the organization that sponsors the National Prayer Breakfast. Owens also authored a complaint against churches that allegedly advantaged Republican Ohio gubernatorial hopeful Kenneth Blackwell.
The Better Business Bureau’s Wise Giving Alliance has been criticized for taking money from charities that it assesses. Marcus Owens served on the board of the Alliance from 2001 through the end of 2009, and was named as the Alliance’s Treasurer in 2008 and 2009 on tax returns.
During his period on WGA’s board, his legal work was a subject of litigation. Feed the Children, Inc. (FTC) alleged that its former President, Larry Jones (who was fired for bugging the offices of three rival FTC executives) told the board Owens was an independent attorney in a dispute surrounding Jones’s failed attempt to sack the FTC board and replace it with handpicked Jones supporters. However, Owens had been advising Jones on his board-sacking plan. FTC alleged that Jones’s misrepresentations cost the organization almost $10,000 in damages for useless legal work that the organization paid for. It is unknowable whether Owens or Caplin & Drysdale knew that he was working for both sides in the dispute.
Feed the Children had received the WGA “Wise Giving Seal” at a reported price of $15,000 per year. However, other charity watchdogs had assessed the group poor marks, with the then-American Institute of Philanthropy giving FTC an “F” and the dishonor of “The Most Outrageous Charity in America.” AIP argued that FTC overstated its work and counted potentially useless in-kind contributions toward its program revenue and expenditure. The charity additionally purchased a $1.2 million residence in which Jones’s daughter lived.
Owens has also worked for groups and individuals accused of ties to Islamist militants. The Washington Free Beacon reported that Owens had testified as an expert witness on behalf of an Iranian-born nonprofit leader who was charged (and later convicted) of tax crimes in a scheme “related to the organization’s efforts to send nearly $150,000 to support religious extremist militants in Chechnya.”