Oversight from Washington, All Along
IRS specialists in Washington were closely involved in the Cincinnati office’s scandalous behavior.


Eliana Johnson

Washington’s involvement with the tea-party cases began in March 2010, just two weeks after a manager in Cincinnati flagged tea-party groups as a potential source of problems. At the time, no formal guidelines for filtering their applications had yet been drawn up. According to the IG report, after just ten tea-party cases were identified by an agent in the Cincinnati office at the request of the Determinations Unit group manager, “the Acting Manager, Technical Unit, requested two more cases be transferred to Washington, D.C.” An organizational flow chart included in the IG report indicates that the manager of the Technical Unit, who lodged the request, is based in Washington.

The following month, according to the IG investigation, the Technical Unit in Washington drew up a “Sensitive Case Report” on the Tea Party. One IRS source described it as “a list that tracks different cases, the issue(s), what is being done or will be done, the responsible official, and an estimate of when the issue(s) will be resolved.” That report was shared with other high-level officials in Washington: the director of Rulings and Agreements and the director of Exempt Organizations.

Delays caused by the Technical Unit in Washington contributed to the long waits described by tea-party groups, whose applications often languished in IRS offices for over a year. The IG report explains that, in October of 2010, a tax-exempt-organizations specialist in Cincinnati charged with working the tea-party cases was hamstrung as he sat waiting for direction from Washington: He “did not work on the cases while waiting for guidance from the Technical Unit.” The New York Times noted one Cincinnati manager’s complaint that “the ‘technical unit’ — lawyers, chiefly in Washington, who advise the specialists on the tax law — had been slow in providing guidance on the applications,” and the Washington Post said they “did not provide guidance on some cases for many months, if at all.”

The Technical Unit also worked to develop a list of general criteria that Cincinnati case workers could use to flag so-called political cases for further review. This occurred both before and after the Cincinnati office’s inappropriate criteria were brought to the attention of Lois Lerner, the director of Exempt Organizations, in June 2011.

After Lerner demanded that the notorious “Be On The Lookout” listing of conservative keywords be changed, the Technical Unit was charged with developing another set of criteria for flagging political cases. The IG report notes that Cincinnati specialists deemed the Technical Unit’s proposals “too lawyerly,” and reverted to the old, objectionable “Be On The Lookout” listing. But even after that, the Technical Unit remained involved, in March 2012 establishing procedures for reviewing letters from the Cincinnati office.

This level of involvement from Washington confirms what many have suspected all along. “Those questions could not have been originated by a few rogue agents,” says Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, which is suing the IRS on behalf of 17 tea-party groups whose applications were allegedly singled out by the IRS. Sekulow tells me he received a letter from a D.C.-based Tax Law Specialist in connection with his tea-party cases.

Cleta Mitchell, the attorney representing a Texas-based group, True the Vote, dedicated to combating voter fraud, says its application — which has been delayed for three years now — is being handled in Washington, too. “The IRS agent in Cincinnati told me in October of 2011 that the True the Vote application was being directed from Washington,” Mitchell recounts. “When I called him back in December of 2011 to inquire as to the status, he informed me that the case had been transferred to a special task force at the IRS offices in Washington. I have understood for more than 18 months that the D.C. offices of the IRS were responsible for calling the shots on these applications related to my conservative issue-group clients.” On Tuesday, True the Vote filed suit against the IRS and is seeking damages for the delay in the processing of its application.

Tea-party groups on Tuesday will protest in front of IRS offices in Cincinnati, Washington, and around the country. Perhaps they are right to cast their net wide, given that their persecution was carried out carefully and programmatically from the nation’s capital — not, as the IRS and the Obama administration would have us believe, sloppily and haphazardly by a handful of reprobate employees in the Midwest.

— Eliana Johnson is media editor of National Review Online.