Defenders of the Obama administration and the IRS insist that the agency’s targeting of conservative groups was not politically motivated. It was wrong and regrettable, they concede, but can be chalked up to incompetence, corner-cutting, or (seriously) lack of funding – politics had nothing to do with it. “We were not politically motivated in targeting conservative groups,” acting IRS commissioner Steven Miller told members of Congress in May. “This was not a political pursuit,” former White House adviser David Plouffe said Sunday on ABC’s This Week.
That is becoming harder and harder to believe as we learn more about the IRS scandal and its key players. Karl Rove may have put it best in his response to Plouffe: “Baloney.”
Take Douglas Shulman, the IRS commissioner from 2008 to 2012, who has refused to accept any personal responsibility for the inappropriate targeting, which began under his watch. Democrats are quick to point out that Shulman was appointed by George W. Bush. They are less likely to mention the fact that he donated $500 to the Democratic National Committee in 2004, and is married to Susan L. Anderson, a senior program adviser at Public Campaign, a liberal non-profit group dedicated to “sweeping campaign reform that aims to dramatically reduce the role of big special interest money in American politics.” Anderson also appears to have participated in the Occupy D.C. movement in 2011, and worked for the Obama campaign in 2012. Her Twitter feed displays an array of conventional left-wing views, although she stopped tweeting on May 12, two days after the scandal came to light.
The allegedly “non-partisan” Public Campaign, whose major donors include notable left-wing advocacy groups such as the Streisand Foundation, Healthcare for America Now!, and the Common Cause Education Fund, was not a fan of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling in 2010, calling it “judicial activism and arrogance at its worst.”
“This decision means more business as usual in Washington, stomping on voters’ hope for change,” Nick Nyhart, president and CEO of Public Campaign, said on January 21, 2010, the day of the Court’s ruling. Less than a week later, President Obama would denounce Citizens United in his State of the Union address, with the Supreme Court justices seated only a few feet away. The IRS targeting of conservative groups began several months later, according to a Treasury inspector general’s report.
More recently, in December 2012, Nyhart attended a secret meeting of prominent liberal interest groups in Washington, D.C., where he reportedly discussed efforts to oust Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell as part of a broader push for campaign-finance reform. When the IRS targeting was revealed on May 10, Nyhart responded in dismissive fashion. “There are legitimate questions to be asked about political groups that are hiding behind a 501(c)(4) status,” he told ABC News. “It’s unfortunate a few bad apples at the IRS will make it harder for those questions to be asked without claims of bias.”
Of course, there has been no evidence uncovered to suggest that Anderson had any influence on Shulman’s role as IRS commissioner. He has repeatedly denied involvement in — and refused to apologize for — the targeting of conservative political groups after Citizens United, and said he did not even learn of the targeting until May 2012. “When someone spotted it, they should have run it up the chain, but they didn’t. Why they didn’t, I don’t know,” Shulman told members of the Senate Finance Committee.
That said, the fact that the IRS commissioner at the time of the targeting had donated to the Democratic party and was married to a liberal activist are far from the only data points suggesting politics may have played a role in the agency’s decision to single out conservative groups for scrutiny. Judging from their campaign donations, IRS employees disproportionately favor Democrats, and gave nearly twice as much to President Obama as they did to Mitt Romney in 2012. Holly Paz, the director of the agency’s Rulings and Agreements Office, which is at the heart of the targeting scandal, is an Obama donor. Many IRS employees also belong to, and contribute money to, the National Treasury Employees Union, a deeply partisan organization that has spent millions to help elect Democrats, and whose president has publicly criticized the Tea Party as “extreme.”
But what about the inspector general’s audit, which found no evidence of political motivation? Scandal skeptics routinely cite this as a definitive conclusion, when the inspector general himself has made clear his findings were merely preliminary; there is no such evidence “at this time” suggesting political motivation, J. Russell George told members of the House Ways and Means Committee.
George conducted an audit, not a full investigation. The findings were based on interviews with IRS employees believed to have been responsible for the targeting. These employees were not questioned under oath. Paz sat in on most of the interviews, something House Oversight Committee chairman Darrell Issa (R., Calif.) called “inappropriate.” A number of IRS employees provided “conflicting information” over the course of the audit, and many details regarding the scandal are “still to be determined,” George has said. Lois Lerner, the IRS official who declined to testify before Congress, certainly appears to have major holes in her story.
The oversight committee published transcripts of recently conducted interviews with IRS employees that suggest the agency’s targeting was political. A senior employee in the Cincinnati field office answered affirmatively when asked whether the purpose of the “Be On the Lookout” list for terms such as “Tea Party” and “patriots” was to identify conservative and Republican groups. Furthermore, the employee said “all [his] direction” came from IRS officials in Washington, D.C., which contradicts initial claims from the administration that low-level workers in Cincinnati were to blame.
Based on almost everything we’ve heard so far from IRS officials and the Obama administration, perhaps the surest sign that a political purpose played a role in the targeting is their adamant insistence that it did not.
— Andrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review Online.