The Taxman Cometh (for Tea Partiers)

The Taxman Cometh (for Tea Partiers)
May 13, 2013

Ross Kaminsky

Ross Kaminsky received his Bachelor's degree from Columbia University in 1987 before embarking on... (read full bio)

On Friday, senior IRS official Lois Lerner offered an apology of sorts after nonprofit organizations that were applying for tax-exempt status were targeted for IRS audit if the groups’ names included “Tea Party” or “patriots.” Lerner said she had learned of this activity only last year.

Few places seem less likely to find humor than a New York Times article about rogue IRS agents, but this line from Friday’s article was laugh-out-loud funny: “[Lerner] insisted that the move was not driven by politics.” Nearly as ridiculous was Lerner’s assertion that the behavior was little more than the activity of overzealous low-level employees and that more senior IRS officials were unaware of the “absolutely inappropriate” behavior.

Lerner did herself no further favors during a subsequent conference call with reporters in which she couldn’t calculate one quarter of 300, saying “I’m not good at math.” Then she and her staff complained about “repetitive” questions, prompting liberal Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter David Cay Johnston to say, according to a Washington Post report (entitled “The IRS’ public relations disaster”), that “it was because they weren’t answering the questions.”

One wonders whether anybody, even New York Times readers, believed that the actions were only those of low-level IRS employees in Cincinnati. If so, they couldn’t believe it for long: Barely 24 hours later, the Associated Press revealed that a draft of an IRS inspector general’s report shows, contrary to lying Lerner’s assertions that the Tea Party-targeting was confined to 2012, that senior IRS officials including Lerner learned of the targeting no later than June 29, 2011.

While the report says that Lerner ordered an immediate “change” regarding how groups would be flagged for audit, that should not be read as an immediate “stop” to political targeting. According to the AP story, “On Jan, 25, 2012, the criteria for flagging suspect groups was changed to, ‘political action type organizations involved in limiting/expanding Government, educating on the Constitution and Bill of Rights, social economic reform/movement,’ the report says.”

USA Today adds that extra scrutiny was given to groups that “had a goal of educating the public via advocacy or lobbying to ‘make America a better place to live’” or that had “any statements in the case file critical of how the country is being run.”

Part of the targeting of Tea Party groups included requesting donor lists, a clear threat to anyone willing to contribute money to anti-Obama or simply pro-limited government organizations.

It is unclear how far up the IRS food chain this rot goes, though it probably did not reach the very top since the IRS commissioner at the time, Douglas Shulman, was an appointee of George W. Bush. In March 2012, Shulman testified before Congress that “there’s absolutely no targeting.” Unlike lying Lerner, it is more likely that Shulman was simply kept in the dark by pro-Obama officials in his organization.

Still, whether or not Shulman knew, the fact remains that even the liberal media, including even MSNBC and CBS News, recognize how damning it is for the IG’s report to implicate “senior Internal Revenue Service Officials” in using one of the most feared government agencies to target organizations due to the political views of those groups’ members.

Apologists suggest that the IRS’s “shortcuts” were an effort to prevent tax-exempt status for “sham” groups which either wanted to misuse the tax code or keep their donor lists secret.

Hogwash.

This is the United States of Alinsky in its full glory.

The IRS’s actions are something one would expect in Venezuela or Cuba, where the central government considers it a proper function to kneecap any opposition.

The left is not trying to hide from a story they know they can’t hide from. The ACLU is condemning the IRS, with the chief of staff at their Washington Legislative Office saying, “Even the appearance of playing partisan politics with the tax code is about as constitutionally troubling as it gets.” And Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein (CA) said on NBC television on Sunday that “I think we have to understand why” the IRS “would give extra scrutiny” to conservative groups. Not exactly righteous indignation, but not the stonewalling we’ve come to expect from Democrats when it comes to Obama administration failures.

Jenny Beth Martin of the Tea Party Patriots (cruising for double-extra IRS scrutiny with that organization name) put it succinctly: “The IRS lied.” The group’s website says, “We reject a simple apology that does nothing to alleviate the danger of this happening again. Only immediate and public actions on the part of the IRS and the president will suffice.”

They are exactly right. In her first “apology,” Lois Lerner said that the IRS agents who took part in this behavior — which likely cross from the unethical into the criminal — have received no punishment or disciplinary action.

Furthermore, according to the Post story, “Lerner said she disclosed the information because someone asked her about it Friday morning — indicating that she had no plans to release the information publicly, despite the confirmed wrongdoing. When asked how they found out about the wrongdoing, Lerner said the investigation stemmed from media reports about conservative groups claiming that they were targeted, not from any internal review.”

It is frightening that the most powerful domestic arm of the federal government has become an untrustworthy pawn of Obama administration partisanship. One need not expect White House involvement to see the danger to civil society when high-ranking bureaucrats think that targeting citizens based on political views would be approved of and desired by their superiors. The erosion of the last shreds of governmental ethics bodes ill for our Republic, especially if not harshly punished.

IRS employees involved in this scandal should be fired and charged with crimes — but only after giving as many low-level agents as possible the chance to earn immunity (but not to keep their jobs) if they turn state’s evidence against their bosses. With an Obama Justice Department run by people too unconcerned with the rule of law to get jobs in Venezuela or Cuba, such prosecutions are unlikely.

Liberal media outlets, anxious to avoid reporting anything which would reflect badly on the Obama administration, were hungry for a story they could cover instead of Benghazi. Unfortunately for them, this story may even be worse for the Obama administration and for Democrats more broadly — and the details are so understandable to the ordinary citizen that even the most left-leaning outlets have been compelled to cover it.

The Obama administration has stunk of incompetence, corruption, and hyper-partisanship throughout its feckless reign. It is not surprising to see officials of the Obama IRS targeting the president’s political opponents; after all, absolutely everything is viewed through the most political lens by the Obama crew, from the top down. And sadly, it is not surprising that it took this long for the slightly-weakening-in-their-Obama-fealty media to turn up the story.

But better late than never.

Despite the fact that the Benghazi cover-up and the IRS targeting of Tea Party groups seem to have nothing in common, they are about to have one critical similarity: desperation by the administration to insulate the highest levels of the Obama administration, whether former Secretary of State Hillary “What difference does Benghazi make?” Clinton, former Treasury Secretary Tim “TurboTax” Geithner, or President Barack “I must have been golfing when this happened” Obama himself.

How far up the ladder will the story climb? Will it reach a cabinet secretary? That’s not as likely as with the Benghazi cover-up. TheWall Street Journal reports that “a government official said the report will note that IRS officials told investigators that no one outside the IRS was involved in developing the criteria the agency now acknowledges were flawed.”

But the fact that the notoriously uninterested-in-foreign-policy public now has credible news of the federal government using the hated tax man to target Americans for their political beliefs may, even without implicating those at the highest levels of the administration, have a substantial political impact.

The petty tyrants at the IRS have added to the distrust, even dislike, of government by many Americans — not just committed conservatives or Tea Party activists. It will make every attempt to increase the size and intrusiveness of government — including the implementation of Obamacare which requires many thousands of regulatory “trust me’s” and a large role for the IRS — much harder to sell. And it will equally make those politicians who support such programs more difficult to sell to a skeptical electorate.

One legislative canary in the coalmine is the horrendous “campaign finance” measure known as the Follow the Money Act, co-sponsored by Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Lisa Murkowski (RINO-AK), which would require onerous registration and reporting requirements for any group spending or receiving over $10,000 in “independent federal election related activity” during an election cycle. As the Center for Competitive Politics puts it, “If enacted, this bill would dragoon the IRS into a role as political campaign enforcer, a role the IRS is ill-equipped for and does not want.”

One measure of the impact of the IRS’s current “public relations disaster” will be seen (or, more precisely, not seen) if this latest “protect the (liberal) incumbents” bill does not come up for a vote in the U.S. Senate.

We are in the early days of this scandal; we have more questions than answers. Watching Jay Carney twist in the wind trying to insulate his boss will make for satisfying viewing for many Tea Party activists. But much more must be done. In the short-term, expect a tsunami of complaints and lawsuits to be filed by aggrieved conservative (and pro-Israel) groups, and others who were unfairly targeted by the IRS.

In the longer-term, expect those very targets to use these events as Exhibit A in their arguments against expanding the size and power of our federal Leviathan.

[First Published at The American Spectator]

Ross Kaminsky

Ross Kaminsky received his Bachelor's degree from Columbia University in 1987 before embarking on... (read full bio)