The Smearing of J. Russell George
House Democrats have turned their ire toward the IRS inspector general.

J. Russell George before a Congressional committee on May 17, 2013.


Eliana Johnson

Democrats at Thursday’s hearing piled on, with Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton charging that if George “were born even yesterday” he would have investigated the targeting of “Occupy” groups, and Pennsylvania’s Matt Cartwright demanding, “What do you think we’re doing here?” “You knew people’s heads would explode if you talked about tea-party BOLOs, and you didn’t mention any other ones,” Cartwright fumed.

The accusations contradict the obvious facts: The 14 BOLO lists Levin released, though they contain the term “Progressive,” instruct IRS screeners to treat the applications of progressive organizations differently from those of tea-party groups. In George’s words, the “Progressive” entry “did not include instructions on how to refer cases that met the criteria,” whereas tea-party cases were automatically sent to higher-ups in the agency for coordination with Washington, D.C. The “Occupy” entry to which Cummings refers instructs screeners to send cases to the same group processing tea-party applications. The head of that group, though, told Congress that when she received applications from liberal groups, she sent them back to “general inventory.” George on Thursday told the House panel that, of the 298 cases scrutinized for political activity, zero fell under the “Occupy” rubric. The “Progressive” and “Occupy” listings may be problematic — it is not clear why the terms were added to the list — but the political activity of liberal groups simply was not put under the microscope.

In advancing this narrative, Democratic lawmakers have succeeded in distorting the issue beyond recognition. George’s audit was limited to the IRS’s scrutiny of cases on the bases of their political activity. IRS agents are supposed to examine applications for potential political involvement — 501(c)(4) groups are prohibited from devoting more than 50 percent of their efforts to political activity — but the IG found that the agency’s process for identifying groups likely to engage in political activity served only as a means of identifying conservative groups. “IRS staff at multiple levels concurred with our analysis, citing ‘Tea Party,’ ‘Patriot,’ and ‘9/12,’ and certain policy positions as the criteria the IRS used to select potential political cases,” George told lawmakers. By using terms associated with the tea-party movement as a proxy for all political activity, the IRS ensured that applications of many liberal groups whose activities should have received scrutiny got a free pass.

Thus, of the 298 “political” cases referred to IRS higher-ups between May 2010 and May 2012, 96 applications included “Tea Party,” “9/12,” or “Patriots” in their names. Others contained terms like “liberty,” “freedom,” and “make America a better place to live.” Six included the terms “Progress” or “Progressive” in their names. Zero included the term “Occupy.” And while 30 percent of progressive cases were deemed “political,” every tea-party case received the designation, and the subsequent scrutiny.

The numbers evince a deeply flawed screening process. While many groups whose applications indicated they were engaging in political activity received no scrutiny from the IRS, others were thrown under the microscope without cause. Of the 298 political cases, “31 percent of them had no evidence in the file of political campaign intervention and perhaps should not have been looked at,” the deputy inspector general for audit, Gregory Kutz, told Congress. Conversely, nearly 30 percent of the cases that weren’t scrutinized “statistically should have actually been included in the political review,” he said. We now know that senior IRS officials were involved in ensuring that the screening process rooted out not political cases per se, but largely conservative ones.

In the midst of a major scandal, another scandal is emerging: the smearing of an IG for rank political reasons. “This is the most unprecedented example I have ever experienced, not only as an inspector general, but as a former member of this very committee staff for almost 25 years, and being a former White House staffer,” George told Republican representative Scott DesJarlais. “I’ve not — I’ve never experienced anything like this, sir.”

— Eliana Johnson is media editor of National Review Online.