This morning, an IRS official named Lois Lerner apologized for inappropriately targeting non-profit groups for scrutiny in 2012 based on the fact that they had the words “Tea Party” or “Patriot” in their names. There are many things that need to be said about this. First, and simplest, is to ask how seriously the Obama administration is going to take this outrageous effort at political suppression by an agency under its charge. Has the IRS inspector general gotten involved? Has a U.S. attorney been apprised of this matter, which can only be considered an act of political intimidation and therefore would fall under the aegis of various federal criminal statutes? If not, why not?
Second, this is a test for the mainstream media. If the fact that the targeted groups are conservative means that the story is soft-pedaled and not subject to major investigative scrutiny, any argument against liberal bias evaporates now and forever. Will this be brought up at today’s press briefing at the White House with Jay Carney? You can bet that had any such thing happened in reverse during the Bush administration, Tony Snow would have been bombarded with questions for weeks if not months.
As it happens, I know something about the chilling effect of an IRS investigation into a non-profit’s 501 (c)-3 status because in 2009, COMMENTARY (a non-profit) received a letter from the Internal Revenue Service threatening the revocation of the institution’s standing as a non-profit due to a claim that on our website we had crossed the line in the 2008 election from analysis to explicit advocacy of the candidacy of John McCain for president. (Non-profits are not permitted to endorse candidates.) The charge was false—all we had done was reprint a speech delivered at a COMMENTARY event by then-Sen. Joseph Lieberman in which he had endorsed McCain.
Taking away a non-profit’s ability to receive tax-exempt charitable contributions is equivalent to a death sentence.
We were told by counsel that, should the IRS rule against us, we would have almost no recourse. You might think free speech rights would trump any such effort, but of course no one is challenging your speech rights, merely finding that what you say runs afoul of laws dealing with non-profits. You have no constitutional right to non-profit status, after all.
Disproving the false charge, which we did eventually in part by literally printing out the 2 million words that had appeared on this site in 2008 and sending them in many boxes to the IRS to show that the words in which Lieberman said he was supporting McCain were essentially a part per million, cost us tens of thousands of dollars and dozens upon dozens of hours of lost work time. The inquiry, which never should have been brought, was closed. But talking to lawyers and strategizing and the like in such a circumstance make the experience an ordeal that leaves you a bit shell-shocked—which is, of course, the point.
Now, I had assumed that a hostile reader or hostile liberal group was responsible for the IRS inquiry into COMMENTARY, but there is a salient detail in today’s story that makes me think something else might have been at work. IRS official Lerner said the effort against the conservative groups in 2012 came from “low-level” officials in the Cincinnati office. The investigation into COMMENTARY came out of the Columbus office. Is there something going on inside the IRS offices in Ohio?
Who will find out?