Through months of Obama administration stonewalling, the redoubtable Judicial Watch perseveres in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, finally uncovering bombshell documents that have eluded several congressional investigations. For the second time in a matter of days, we find that standing oversight committees with competing subject-matter jurisdictions and limited attention spans are incapable of the grand-jury-style probe needed to get to the bottom of administration lawlessness. For that, in the absence of a scrupulous special prosecutor reasonably independent from the Obama Justice Department (not gonna happen), it becomes clear that a select committee will be necessary.
Just two weeks ago, the scandal involved the cover-up of administration duplicity regarding the Benghazi massacre. (See my related article in the new edition of National Review.) Now, it is the targeting of conservative groups by the Internal Revenue Service.
For a year, the administration and IRS headquarters in Gomorrah by the Potomac have attempted to run an implausible con-job: The harassment of organizations opposed to Obama’s policies by an executive-branch agency had nothing to do with the Obama administration — it was just a rogue operation by an IRS office in Cincinnati which, though regrettably overzealous, was apolitical, non-ideological, and without “even a smidgen of corruption.”
The story had about as much credibility as the administration’s “blame the video” script that Susan Rice dutifully performed on the post-Benghazi Sunday shows, or the Justice Department’s 2011 assurance to Congress that its agents would never knowingly allow the transfer of a couple of thousand guns to criminal gangs in Mexico. The “Cincinnati did it” yarn has been unraveling since it was first spun by IRS honcho Lois Lerner and, soon afterwards, by President Obama himself. The lie has now been exploded by e-mails clawed from the IRS by Judicial Watch’s Freedom of Information Act suit.
These include one from a top IRS lawyer in Washington succinctly explaining in July 2010 that “EOT [i.e., the revenue agency’s “Exempt Organization Technical unit” in Washington] is working Tea party applications in coordination with Cincy.” “Tea party applications” were requests by conservative groups to be granted tax-exempt status under Section 501(c)(4) of the Internal Revenue Code. By selectively setting aside their applications, delaying the conferral of tax-exempt status to which the law entitled them, and putting them through inquisitions that violated their constitutional rights to political speech and association, IRS headquarters prevented them from raising funds and organizing as an effective opposition.
The e-mails elucidate that Cincinnati’s strings were being pulled in Washington: “We are developing a few applications here in DC and providing copies of our development letters with the agent [in Cincinnati] to use as examples in the development of their cases.” “Tea party applications,” IRS headquarters elaborates, have been isolated as “the subject of an SCR” — meaning “sensitive case report.” To “resolve” such cases would require “coordination with Rob” — a reference, Judicial Watch contends, to Rob Choi, who was then a high-ranking IRS official in Washington.
It is no more conceivable that IRS headquarters was off on its own anti–Tea Party witch-hunt than that the subordinate Cincinnati office was. The fuse, it must be recalled, was lit by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010, affirming the First Amendment’s prohibition against government restrictions of political speech by corporations. The ruling enraged the Left and prompted the president’s tongue-lashing of the stunned justices during the 2010 State of the Union address.
At this point, it remains unclear which, if any, administration officials were — to borrow the delicate term — “coordinating” with the IRS. It is manifest, though, that in the atmosphere charged by Obama’s impertinence, congressional Democrats felt empowered to push the IRS to undermine free political speech through administrative intimidation. Judicial Watch’s FOIA suit reveals correspondence in which Senator Carl Levin, the powerful Michigan Democrat, agitates for IRS action against several conservative groups. In accommodating responses, then-IRS deputy commissioner Steven Miller takes pains to assure him that flexible regulations enable the revenue agency to design “individualized questions and requests” for targeted Section 501(c)(4) applicants.
After a damning Treasury inspector-general report last year, even the IRS concedes that its singling out of conservative groups and obnoxiously intrusive demands for information were “inappropriate.” In truth, they were blatantly unconstitutional. As is always the case in Washington scandals, the question of whether crimes were committed arises — and now, the companion question of whether lawmakers who encouraged executive lawlessness are guilty of crimes.
For the time being, the lawsuits brought by conservative organizations victimized by the IRS have alleged only civil wrongs: principally, the deprivation of their constitutional rights to free speech and association, and of their statutory right to tax-exempt status. Nevertheless, these claims could trigger criminal jeopardy. For example, federal law (specifically, Section 242 of the penal code) makes it a crime for a government official to “willfully subject any person . . . to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured or protected by the Constitution or laws of the United States.”