Commentary Magazine


IRS Scandal Bigger Than We Thought

The initial revelations about the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of conservative groups were shocking enough. The federal government’s tax collectors had singled out groups with the words “Tea Party” or “Patriot” in their names and subjected them to special scrutiny about requests for nonprofit status. But it turns out that parts of what we were told on Friday morning were either incomplete or not true.

First of all, we were initially given the impression this was an isolated case of an obscure regional office gone rogue. We now know the reason why these requests originated from Ohio was because that is where the agency had concentrated all of their work on monitoring the granting of 501(c)4 status requests.

We were given the impression on Friday that Washington was cracking down on the problem when it was found out. But we now know the IRS leadership knew about the scandal as far back as 2010. Far worse than that, today the Washington Post reveals that it wasn’t just those Cincinnati-based employees who were thrown under the bus on Friday that were responsible for these outrages:

IRS officials at the agency’s Washington headquarters sent queries to conservative groups asking about their donors and other aspects of their operations, while officials in the El Monte and Laguna Niguel offices in California sent similar questionnaires to tea-party-affiliated groups, the documents show.

IRS employees in Cincinnati told conservatives seeking the status of “social welfare” groups that a task force in Washington was overseeing their applications, according to interviews with the activists.

In other words, the decision to target conservatives was taken at a far higher level than one regional office. It has all the signs of being an agency-wide policy and it is reasonable to assume that someone close to the top of the IRS had a hand in it. The real question those who will be tasked with unraveling this mess is not just who gave the order at the IRS, but why.

Let’s specify that as of this moment there is no evidence that anyone in the White House whispered in the ears of IRS employees to make life difficult for their political opponents or even those who didn’t like the way the country was being run (another key indicator for special IRS treatment). Nor do we yet know if someone at the Treasury Department, to which the IRS reports, did anything like that.

And yet there is the plain fact that in the lead-up to the 2012 election cycle, what we are now coming to see as a broad cross-section of IRS personnel employed policy decisions which were specifically geared to hinder the efforts of those who were opposed to the administration. We know that the leadership of the organization knew about it at the start of the 2012 campaign. And we know that this only was revealed to the public six months after President Obama was safely re-elected.

We also know that the politicization of the IRS wasn’t limited to the Tea Party and like-minded groups. As our John Podhoretz pointed out on Friday, COMMENTARY magazine was singled out for unfair scrutiny. And, as Lori Lowenthal Marcus wrote in the Jewish Press, Z Street, a pro-Israel organization that she headed, had the screws put to it in 2010 when it applied for nonprofit status. As Marcus wrote, her group was specifically asked about its opposition to the administration’s policies.

It was appropriate to hear President Obama condemn politicization of the IRS at his press conference yesterday (though it was troubling that he did so while speaking as if it was unproved when the IRS had already admitted that it was true), and good to know that even most liberal columnists and Democrats have now conceded the agency’s behavior was wrong.

However, it strains credibility to believe that widespread abuse of the powers of the IRS was solely the work of a few tax geeks with civil service jobs. Maybe it is possible that an agency that is supposed to be above politics could be perverted in this manner without someone linked to the administration’s political apparatus having had some sort of role in it. Perhaps it was just a case of IRS staff reading the New York Times editorial page and taking their calls for a crackdown on conservatives to heart. But that is what investigators should find out.

Generic condemnations of this egregious and politically biased abuse of power aren’t good enough. We need to find out who gave the order and who knew that this order was given. An administration that has treated the constitutional rights of its opponents as unworthy of respect had better be prepared to finally start telling the truth.

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