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Topic: John Koskinen

One Chance to Hold the IRS Accountable?

Though the IRS and its commissioner have been on the hot seat in recent congressional hearings, there is little doubt that the agency and the Obama administration believe they can ride out the storm by stonewalling Republicans asking questions about the scandal and the missing emails that are now at the center of the controversy. But an otherwise obscure legal challenge to the tax-collecting bureaucracy may hold the key to bringing some measure of accountability to the nation’s tax collectors.

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Though the IRS and its commissioner have been on the hot seat in recent congressional hearings, there is little doubt that the agency and the Obama administration believe they can ride out the storm by stonewalling Republicans asking questions about the scandal and the missing emails that are now at the center of the controversy. But an otherwise obscure legal challenge to the tax-collecting bureaucracy may hold the key to bringing some measure of accountability to the nation’s tax collectors.

As we’ve noted numerous times here, there are still a lot of unanswered questions about how and why the IRS singled out conservative groups for scrutiny when they applied for tax-exempt status. But concern about this blatantly illegal political bias has been only compounded by the revelation that the emails of the woman at the center of the affair—department chief Lois Lerner—were lost in a mysterious computer crash. It now turns out that not only was the damaged computer hard drive recycled but that the agency also erased its own email servers. As has been pointed out repeatedly by IRS critics, taxpayers and corporations are required by law to preserve all of their communications for seven years in case they might be audited. But the IRS, a government body with nearly unlimited powers to wreck the lives of individuals that come under its scrutiny, doesn’t live by the same laws that they rigorously enforce against ordinary citizens.

But despite the suspicious nature of the missing emails and the fact that the agency cancelled the contract of the IT service provider at the same time that it lost vital information at the heart of this scandal, there seems little that critics can do about it other than to hound IRS Commissioner John Koskinen in hearings. Though his story is merely a sophisticated version of the old “dog ate my homework” excuse, Koskinen hasn’t lost his cool or cracked under the pressure. That’s due to what appears to be a thick hide and his confidence that congressional Democrats will always cover for the administration no matter how outrageous its behavior. Since Lerner has pled the Fifth Amendment in her attempt to avoid answering questions and Attorney General Eric Holder will never launch a genuine investigation of this affair or appoint a special prosecutor, it doesn’t seem like the angry Republicans can do much but to huff and puff at Koskinen or any other hapless IRS official that attempts to tell the same lame story he’s been trying to sell Congress.

But, as I noted last month, there appears to be one hope, albeit a slim one, for some measure of accountability about the IRS’s unconstitutional behavior: a lawsuit by a small pro-Israel group that was told by agency employees that its application for non-profit status was being scrutinized because of its opposition to the Obama administration’s foreign policy.

After years of stonewalling the case, the IRS was dealt a staggering legal setback last month when a federal judge ordered that the agency must answer the lawsuit. That response is due today. But the events of the last few weeks in which we have learned of the disappearance of Lerner’s emails makes it all the more interesting since as the defendant in the case, the IRS had the obligation to preserve all records relating to the alleged discrimination against Z Street. Since Lerner was the official supervising those who were dealing with Z Street during this period, that makes the missing evidence even more crucial. Moreover, as the plaintiffs pursue their case they will have the ability to compel IRS officials to testify as to their practices and produce all records. If they don’t that will only strengthen Z Street’s case.

Though Congress may not be able to do more than rail at Koskinen and the IRS, the Z Street case will not only open up a window on their behavior but, as the Wall Street Journal editorial page wrote earlier this week:

Attorney General Eric Holder won’t name a special prosecutor, but there’s still plenty of room for the judge in the Z Street case to force the IRS to explain and answer for its “willful spoliation” of email evidence.

The spectacle of a ruthless tax agency acting illegally and with seeming impunity undermines the rule of law and faith in our democratic system. And since neither Democrats nor their cheering section in the media appear willing to rise up and pressure the administration to appoint a prosecutor who will investigate these extremely suspicious coincidences and missing evidence (which would have liberals screaming for impeachment if the two sides were reversed and a Republican administration behaved in this manner), not much may happen to anyone in the scandal and the agency may escape accountability. But the Z Street suit has the potential to reveal more about this scandal than all the committees in Congress may ever be able to produce.

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JFK and the Wrecking of the Presidency

The recent Obama administration scandals, especially those involving the IRS and Veterans Affairs, have highlighted just how adversarial a relationship has developed between the ruling and the ruled. Last night’s oversight hearing on the IRS scandal had some fireworks, but the most telling exchange went mostly unnoticed. It was between Rep. Kerry Bentivolio, Republican of Michigan, and new IRS Commissioner John Koskinen.

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The recent Obama administration scandals, especially those involving the IRS and Veterans Affairs, have highlighted just how adversarial a relationship has developed between the ruling and the ruled. Last night’s oversight hearing on the IRS scandal had some fireworks, but the most telling exchange went mostly unnoticed. It was between Rep. Kerry Bentivolio, Republican of Michigan, and new IRS Commissioner John Koskinen.

Here’s the relevant exchange:

Bentivolio: My question is about self-interest. Do you believe that employees of the IRS can remain objective when analyzing the tax implications of groups and people that want them to lose their jobs?

Koskinen: I think so. I think that they’re professionals, they’re dedicated to–

Bentivolio: I have no doubt in their professionalism. I’m not asking you about that. I’m asking you about their neutrality and how it affects their objectivity. Do you believe that any person can sustain objectivity toward someone that they perceive as a threat to their livelihood?

In fact this is at the center of the scandal with the IRS and others. In recent months, the rise of the “government class” has received its due notice. Jonah Goldberg had an excellent column this week on the “naked self-interest of the government-worker class,” which gets at why this public airing of grievances is so uncomfortable for Democrats. Mark Steyn went further in warning that “when the supposedly impartial civil service uses those powers in the service of the ruling party” we are witnessing something akin to the “merger of party and state.” Others have noted, correctly, that the American presidency has become a bit royal for a republic–though without the nonpartisan class and grace of the queen.

But not nearly enough attention is being paid to the man who did more to bring this about than perhaps any other president: Jack Kennedy.

Kennedy did this in two ways, one of substance and the other of style. The substance was his executive order permitting the unionization of federal workers. It was not the first time public employees were allowed to unionize, but it was groundbreaking at the federal level and it opened the floodgates. In many ways, state and local public unions are more a drag on the budgets that dictate Americans’ tax bills. But federal unions have an important advantage: power.

The power of the Department of Veterans Affairs to stymie reforms goes much further than unionization. But that’s part of it. When the VA scandal hit, there were many suggestions on how to begin to put the pieces back together. The least surprising was reported by the Hill in late May: “The Veterans Affairs healthcare scandal can be solved by giving the department more money, a top federal employees union said Thursday.”

But where was all the money going that was supposed to be helping veterans in the first place? To the unions, as the Wall Street Journal’s Kimberley Strassel pointed out:

Manhattan Institute scholar Diana Furchtgott-Roth recently detailed Office of Personnel Management numbers obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by Rep. Phil Gingrey (R., Ga.). On May 25, Ms. Furchtgott-Roth reported on MarketWatch that the VA in 2012 paid 258 employees to be 100% “full-time,” receiving full pay and benefits to do only union work. Seventeen had six-figure salaries, up to $132,000. According to the Office of Personnel Management, the VA paid for 988,000 hours of “official” time in fiscal 2011, a 23% increase from 2010.

Moreover, as Sens. Rob Portman (R., Ohio) and Tom Coburn (R., Okla.) noted in a 2013 letter to Mr. Shinseki, the vast majority of these “official” timers were nurses, instrument technicians pharmacists, dental assistants and therapists, who were being paid to do union work even as the VA tried to fill hundreds of jobs and paid overtime to other staff.

Federal union leaders were shaking down taxpayers to line their pockets with money that was intended to treat veterans. The only appropriate response from federal union leaders to this revelation should have been pure, unadulterated, soul-gripping shame. Their response instead was to ask for more money.

The style with which Kennedy helped wreck the presidency was in its self-conscious recreation of a palace and its royal court. Probably the best to chronicle this was Sally Bedell Smith. In her book on the Kennedys in the White House, her cast of characters is listed under the heading “The Kennedy Court.” Here’s her description of the royal atmosphere:

The Kennedys may have been Democrats, full of compassion for the poor and dispossessed, but the image of Jack and Jackie as king and queen surrounded by their court had occurred to many people familiar with the administration. The British political philosopher and formidable Oxford don Isaiah Berlin—a guest at several private White House dinners—saw the Kennedys as “Bonapartist,” finding parallels in Napoleon’s brothers who, like Robert F. Kennedy as attorney general and Edward M. Kennedy as U.S. senator, held responsible positions in the government. …

The columnist Stewart Alsop complained after one year of the Kennedy administration, “The place is lousy with courtiers and ladies in waiting—actual or would be.” As with court life in earlier centuries, the Kennedy entourage made a stately progress: from the White House to expensive homes in the Virginia hunt country, to Palm Beach, Hyannis Port, and Newport—all playgrounds for the rich and privileged. “Jackie wanted to do Versailles in America,” said Oleg Cassini, her official dress designer and self-described “de facto courtier close to the king and queen.” “She said this many times,” Cassini added.

What JFK did, then, was to lay the foundation for a federal government with an explicitly royalist identity and a unionized government class with job security but no accountability, and who had the power to disrupt the lives and the rights of the citizens who had other ideas about American democracy. There has been a tendency to romanticize the Kennedy presidency, not just by liberals who miss the monarchical elitism but by conservatives who appreciate Kennedy’s tax cutting and internationalist foreign policy. The nostalgia is misplaced, for the Kennedy presidency was damaging to the American project and we are still paying for it today.

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Ryan to IRS Commissioner: “This is Unbelievable. … Nobody Believes You.”

In a hearing about the IRS targeting of conservative groups, Representative Paul Ryan–during his exchange with IRS Commission John Koskinen–leveled a devastating criticism of Koskinen, essentially accusing him of being a liar. Mr. Ryan runs through the layers of deception, and pattern of abuse, we’re seen from the IRS so far, which now includes the fantastic claim that it has lost ex-IRS official Lois Lerner’s hard drive with emails relevant to the (illegal) audits of conservative groups. Lois Lerner’s crashed hard drive has been recycled, we’re now being told. (The Internal Revenue Service also revealed earlier this week that it can’t produce emails from six more employees involved in the targeting of conservative groups, including from Nikole Flax, the chief of staff to former IRS commissioner Steven Miller, who was fired in the wake of the targeting scandal.)

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In a hearing about the IRS targeting of conservative groups, Representative Paul Ryan–during his exchange with IRS Commission John Koskinen–leveled a devastating criticism of Koskinen, essentially accusing him of being a liar. Mr. Ryan runs through the layers of deception, and pattern of abuse, we’re seen from the IRS so far, which now includes the fantastic claim that it has lost ex-IRS official Lois Lerner’s hard drive with emails relevant to the (illegal) audits of conservative groups. Lois Lerner’s crashed hard drive has been recycled, we’re now being told. (The Internal Revenue Service also revealed earlier this week that it can’t produce emails from six more employees involved in the targeting of conservative groups, including from Nikole Flax, the chief of staff to former IRS commissioner Steven Miller, who was fired in the wake of the targeting scandal.)

And here’s Ryan’s colleague, Kevin Brady, grilling Mr. Koskinen, saying this (h/t: HotAir.com):

Mr. Commissioner, why, at this point, why should anyone believe you? The IRS denied for two years targeting of Americans based on their political beliefs. That wasn’t the truth. They said it was a few rogue agents in Cincinnati. That wasn’t the truth. You said you were targeting liberal organizations. That wasn’t the truth. Then you assured us you would provide us all the emails in May and that wasn’t the truth. And today, you’re telling us out of thousands of IRS computers, the one that lost the emails was a person of interest in an ongoing congressional investigation. And that is not the truth either. This is the most corrupt and deceitful IRS in [American] history.

It’s fairly obvious, I think, that what has occurred is the destruction of evidence related to a congressional investigation about the abuse of power of one of the two most powerful agencies in government. Daniel Henninger of the Wall Street Journal makes the case that “The IRS tea-party audit story isn’t Watergate; it’s worse than Watergate. The Watergate break-in was the professionals of the party in power going after the party professionals of the party out of power. The IRS scandal is the party in power going after the most average Americans imaginable.”

Whether it turns out to be worse than Watergate is impossible to know at this point. But it is bad enough. One question–not the only one, but an important one–is whether and how deep this scandal reaches into the rest of the Obama administration, including the Obama White House.

Inquiring minds want to know.

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Nothing “Reasonable” About IRS Cock-and-Bull Computer Story

Yesterday, new White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest characterized the Internal Revenue Service’s claim that all of Lois Lerner’s emails were lost as “entirely reasonable.” Adopting the same combative tone that made his predecessor Jay Carney an embarrassment to the president, Earnest declared that any questions about why it is that the IRS suddenly finds itself unable to comply with requests from Congress for this information were “not particularly believable” and sarcastically asked if anyone had ever heard of a computer crash.

Of course, as our John Steele Gordon noted on Sunday, Earnest’s declaration that the loss of the email is “a fact,” is almost certainly not true. Investigators should be able to find the emails on the agency’s server. That is a “fact” that IRS Commissioner John Koskinen actually admitted to earlier in the year when testifying before Congress when he promised to comply with requests for these communications and other information that might shed some light on what lay behind Lerner’s orders to her staff to target Tea Party and other conservative groups for special scrutiny.

Koskinen will again be on the hot seat next week when he is hauled before two House committees to explain why he thinks he can get away with a classic “dog ate my homework excuse” instead of producing the emails. But the agency’s decision to announce that a mysterious computer crash devoured all of Lerner’s work emails during a crucial two year period under investigation in a Friday afternoon news dump was more than just an effort to bury the story. The administration must understand that this development is bound to fuel continuing interest in a story they thought was largely finished. But the highly suspicious disappearance of the emails will do more than just raise Watergate comparisons. You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to understand that the possible destruction of evidence that might link the IRS’ illegal behavior to other branches of the government leaves open the possibility that this scandal may just be getting started.

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Yesterday, new White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest characterized the Internal Revenue Service’s claim that all of Lois Lerner’s emails were lost as “entirely reasonable.” Adopting the same combative tone that made his predecessor Jay Carney an embarrassment to the president, Earnest declared that any questions about why it is that the IRS suddenly finds itself unable to comply with requests from Congress for this information were “not particularly believable” and sarcastically asked if anyone had ever heard of a computer crash.

Of course, as our John Steele Gordon noted on Sunday, Earnest’s declaration that the loss of the email is “a fact,” is almost certainly not true. Investigators should be able to find the emails on the agency’s server. That is a “fact” that IRS Commissioner John Koskinen actually admitted to earlier in the year when testifying before Congress when he promised to comply with requests for these communications and other information that might shed some light on what lay behind Lerner’s orders to her staff to target Tea Party and other conservative groups for special scrutiny.

Koskinen will again be on the hot seat next week when he is hauled before two House committees to explain why he thinks he can get away with a classic “dog ate my homework excuse” instead of producing the emails. But the agency’s decision to announce that a mysterious computer crash devoured all of Lerner’s work emails during a crucial two year period under investigation in a Friday afternoon news dump was more than just an effort to bury the story. The administration must understand that this development is bound to fuel continuing interest in a story they thought was largely finished. But the highly suspicious disappearance of the emails will do more than just raise Watergate comparisons. You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to understand that the possible destruction of evidence that might link the IRS’ illegal behavior to other branches of the government leaves open the possibility that this scandal may just be getting started.

Earnest’s confidence that he could brazenly dismiss questions about Lerner’s emails stems from the administration’s belief that the IRS story has fundamentally changed in the last year. Initially, there was bipartisan outrage over the agency’s clearly outrageous and politically motivated practices. But within weeks, the media moved on and the only engine riving the story became the efforts of House Republicans like Rep. Darrell Issa, whose awkward investigatory style was easy to dismiss as partisan hackwork. The foolish confrontation between Issa and Democrat Elijah Cummings aided the efforts of the White House and its liberal media cheerleaders to claim that the entire issue was a “phony scandal” rather than a fundamental threat to the rule of law as even some liberals had agreed when the story first broke.

Comparisons to Watergate are always going to fall short and there is a vast difference between the infamous erasure of 18 minutes of White House tape recordings by Richard Nixon’s secretary and whatever it was that happened to Lois Lerner’s computer. But obstruction of justice is not a small thing especially when its impact is to effectively shut down a Congressional probe aimed at finding out why exactly Lerner choose to single out Tea Partiers and conservatives. It may be that there is nothing of interest in her emails, or at least nothing that connects anyone else in the administration to what happened at the IRS. But until we see those communications, it is hardly unreasonable for the president’s critics to wonder aloud at the amazing coincidence that led the supposedly non-partisan tax agency to give the business to Obama’s foes.

Were this really a phony scandal with, as the White House insists, nothing that connected high ranking figures to what was going on at the IRS, then it would behoove the administration to get all the information out on this question as soon as possible. Instead, the government has stalled Congress for a year only to then come up with an obviously lame and almost certainly false excuse about a single hard drive crash gobbling up all those emails.

It doesn’t take much imagination to ponder to what the response of Democrats and liberal organs like the New York Times would be if, instead of President Obama and his acolytes, it were George W. Bush’s staffers that were claiming that it was “reasonable” that information had merely vanished in a cloud of Internet smoke. We don’t need latter-day heroic Woodwards and Bernsteins to procure a new Deep Throat to come up with the answers to the obvious questions that the IRS’ cock-and-bull story raises. We just need a run-of-the-mill free press dedicated to ferreting out the truth about a government scandal and some honest Democrats prepared to join with Republicans in asking uncomfortable questions rather than covering for their party’s leaders. Any takers?

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