Politics & Policy

Five IRS Scandal Myths

“Rogue agents,” apolitical targeting, and a limited time frame? Not so fast.

The Obama administration and its defenders have done their best to downplay the IRS’s targeting of conservative groups, and to distance the president from the scandal. But in doing so they have made numerous claims that have that turned out to be grossly misleading — at best. 

1. It was a few rogue agents in Cincinnati

This claim has crumbled in recent weeks.

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Lois Lerner, the IRS’s director of Exempt Organizations, who has refused to testify before Congress, was the first to blame “our line people in Cincinnati” for initiating the targeting. Former IRS commissioner Steven Miller said two “rogue” agents in the Ohio office were responsible. White House press secretary Jay Carney perpetuated the claim, referring to the “activity in Cincinnati” and “the apparent conduct by our IRS officials in Cincinnati.”

But the notion that the targeting was directed by low-level employees Cincinnati has been refuted on multiple fronts. A number of conservative groups that asked about the status of their applications, for example, were told that the Cincinnati office was awaiting guidance from officials in Washington, D.C.

Employees in the Cincinnati office made clear to members of the House Oversight Committee that they received direction from the Exempt Organizations Technical Unit in Washington. One employee said that he began compiling application from tea-party groups after being told that “Washington, D.C., wanted some cases.” Another complained of “being micromanaged to death” by her superiors in Washington, and said the notion that a couple of rogue agents were responsible was “absurd” and “could never happen.” 

2. The targeting stopped in 2012

Jay Carney told reporters last month that the IRS targeting “stopped in May of 2012.” Apparently not. After more than three years, some conservative groups are still awaiting a decision on their applications for non-profit status. Dozens of conservative groups report receiving letters from the IRS in the fall of 2012 — and later. Linchpins of Liberty, a student-mentoring organization in Tennessee, which has been the target of numerous invasive requests from the IRS (it was asked to identify the names of its student participants, for example), received another letter on May 6, 2013, days before news of the scandal broke.

“Without question the IRS misconduct of harassing and abusing our clients was still in high gear from May 2012 through May of this year,” said Jay Sekulow, an attorney representing 27 conservative groups targeted by the IRS. “To suggest this tactic ended a year ago is not only offensive, but it is simply inaccurate.” 

3. Liberal groups were also targeted

One way in which the administration’s defenders have sought to downplay the severity of the scandal is claiming that the IRS also singled out liberal political groups for extra scrutiny. That doesn’t appear to be the case. As McClatchy reported last week, “virtually no organizations perceived to be liberal or nonpartisan have come forward to say they were unfairly targeted” since the scandal came to light on May 10.

In fact, groups with words like “Progress” or “Progressive” in their names were quickly approved, while tea-party groups saw their applications delayed repeatedly. J. Russell George, the Treasury inspector general who conducted an audit of the IRS targeting, has said that while he is still investigating the matter, his audit “did not uncover instances of groups that could be identified as liberal that were treated in the manner that these tea party cases were.”

Some Democrats, such as Representative Jim McDermott (Wash.), have gone so far as to argue the IRS was targeting liberal groups during the George W. Bush administration. Fact-checkers have dismissed that claim as false.

4. Absolutely no political motivations

Democrats also insist that, in the words of former White House adviser David Plouffe, the IRS targeting of conservatives “was not a political pursuit.” Although the inspectors general’s audit found no evidence of political motivation “at this time,” there are numerous factors suggesting a systemic liberal bias within the tax-collecting agency.

Douglas Shulman, who was IRS commissioner when most of the targeting occurred, is a Democratic donor, and he  is married to liberal activist with ties to the Occupy Wall Street movement. IRS employees donated twice as much money to President Obama as they did to Mitt Romney in 2012, and nearly 30 times as much to Obama over his 2008 challenger John McCain. Holly Paz, the director of the agency’s Rulings and Agreements Office — who appears to have played some role in directing the targeting of conservative groups — gave $2,000 to Obama in 2008.

The union that represents most IRS workers, the National Treasury Employees Union, is a blatantly partisan organization, which spent millions of dollars in support of Democratic candidates. Colleen Kelley, the union’s president since 1999, has been openly critical of the Tea Party, calling the movement “extreme.”

5. The case is ‘solved’

Elijah Cummings, ranking member on the House Oversight Committee, seems to think so. “Based upon everything I’ve seen, the case is solved,” he said Sunday on CNN’s State of the Union. “If it were me, I would wrap this case up and move on.”

Committee chairman Darrell Issa (R., Calif.), certainly disagrees. And so does the Treasury’s inspector general, who has emphasized that the findings of his audit are merely preliminary, and that many details are “still to be determined.” Lerner, a central figure in the scandal, has declined to testify, despite being urged to do so by newly appointed IRS commissioner Danny Werfel.

And despite President Obama’s insistence that “we’re going to hold the responsible parties accountable,” no one at the IRS has been fired. Four individuals have either resigned, retired, or, in Lerner’s case, been place on (paid) administrative leave. 

According to a recent Gallup poll, Americans overwhelmingly disapprove of the president’s handling of the scandal. Lawmakers are unlikely to be satisfied until they see some greater accountability or, at the very least, some honest answers. 

— Andrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review Online.

Andrew Stiles — Andrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review Online. He previously worked at the Washington Free Beacon, and was an intern at The Hill newspaper. Stiles is a 2009 ...

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