The Internal Revenue Service hadn’t spoken four sentences about its targeting of conservative groups before it blamed “our line people in Cincinnati.”
Those were the words of Director of Exempt Organizations Lois Lerner on May 10, when she acknowledged the misconduct in an answer to a question at an American Bar Association conference. In a session with reporters later that day, she famously admitted that she is not good at math. It turns out that she is not good at geography, either.
The locus of the IRS scandal, it has steadily emerged, is not in Cincinnati but in Washington, where lawyers and supervisors were aware of and directed the special scrutiny for tea-party groups applying for 501(c)(4) status. This has falsified a line of defense that the administration and its allies have held as assiduously as Lieutenant John Chard’s troops at Rorke’s Drift.
White House press secretary Jay Carney explained: “There were line employees at the IRS who improperly targeted conservative groups.” Representative Jim McDermott of Washington state summed it all up thusly: “This small group of people in the Cincinnati office screwed up.” James Carville still holds out the possibility that the whole mess was caused by “some people in the Cincinnati office.”
The Cincinnati explanation has many virtues. It serves to minimize the scandal by blaming it on what sounds like a bureaucratic backwater, and the Cincinnati IRS office is about 505 miles from the White House, 504.2 more miles than the IRS headquarters in Washington.
But the “Blame Cincinnati First” crowd should have had no credibility from the beginning. As Eliana Johnson of National Review reported, the inspector general report, released right after the scandal broke, detailed in its chronology how Cincinnati employees constantly interacted with Washington. In May 2010, staffers in the so-called Determinations Unit in Cincinnati were told to “send additional information request letters to the Technical Unit for review prior to issuance.” The Technical Unit is in Washington.
Shortly thereafter, the Technical Unit “began reviewing additional information request letters prepared by the Determinations Unit.” IRS lawyers in Washington approved intrusive questions of tea-party groups and even wrote them. Staff in Cincinnati complained about the micromanagement.
The House Oversight Committee investigation has found the same thing. A Cincinnati employee named Gary Muthert told committee investigators that he flagged tea-party applications because his supervisor told him that “Washington, D.C., wanted some cases.”
Johnson reports that another Cincinnati employee, Elizabeth Hofacre, was shocked when Lerner initially blamed Cincinnati. She told committee investigators, “It was a nuclear strike on us.” It’s impossible to have a rogue operation of a couple of employees in Cincinnati, because “the managers, they have really tight inventory-control systems,” in Hofacre’s telling. “I mean they get periodic prints of our inventory, so they know exactly what cases we had, how old they are, how long we have had them.”
Notwithstanding all this, the ranking Democrat on the Oversight Committee, Maryland Representative Elijah Cummings has pronounced the IRS scandal solved. He cites testimony of one Cincinnati manager who says he has no reason to believe that the White House was involved. The manager also says the focus on the Tea Party arose because someone in Cincinnati went to the Technical Unit with questions about an initial application in 2010.
Even if this account is correct, it’s a far cry from the Cincinnati-centric defense initially on offer. It means that Washington was involved from the very beginning. As someone who knew about the targeting and was involved years ago, Lois Lerner shouldn’t have been surprised by this. She, after all, works — or worked — in Washington.