Politics & Policy

Contempt and the IRS

Lois Lerner testifies before a House committee.

The House Oversight Committee has voted to hold former IRS subpotentate Lois Lerner in contempt of Congress, while the House Ways and Means Committee has referred her case to the Justice Department for criminal prosecution. The facts in the case suggest very strongly that Ms. Lerner has earned the contempt of the American people as well as criminal prosecution to the full extent of the law. The question of whether Justice will do justice now rests with the Obama administration, in service to which Ms. Lerner organized and oversaw the repression of nonprofit activists under color of IRS authority. That a not inconsiderable portion of the moral credibility of the United States government now rests in the hands of Eric Holder is not a comforting thought. Mr. Holder holds the title of attorney general, but he is in effect very little more than a political enabler. The president himself denies that there exists a “smidgen” of corruption at the IRS. The evidence says otherwise. What the attorney general will say is anybody’s guess.

Now that the Oversight Committee has voted, the contempt proceedings against Ms. Lerner will go to a vote of the full House. If the House votes to proceed, it may either hand the case over to the U.S. attorney or move forward with its own tribunal. If she is found in contempt, Congress can press suit, wait for the DOJ to prosecute, or demand that she comply with a subpoena and have her incarcerated — where she belongs — if she refuses. The criminal case is in the end more important than the contempt proceedings, but we would be astounded if it went anywhere under the leadership of Eric Holder, who evinces very little enthusiasm for doing his job when he could be doing the political bidding of his president.

The Democrats are determined to turn a blind eye to all this — every one of them voted against holding her in contempt. Here is a taste of what they intend to tolerate:

#ad#Ms. Lerner, in direct contravention of federal law, specifically directed the IRS to target Crossroads GPS, the conservative activist outfit associated with Karl Rove, and when the IRS did not act with satisfactory alacrity demanded to know why the organization had not been audited and its application for tax-exempt status denied. She specifically directed IRS employees to make sure that all actions regarding Crossroads were coordinated with her office. The targeting of Crossroads by the IRS came directly after Illinois Democratic senator Dick Durbin sent the IRS commission a letter demanding such an investigation. In correspondence, Lerner did not write that the Crossroads application was under review; she wrote that “we are working on a denial of the application.” According to the House document, the IRS agent working on the Crossroads case reported that “specific guidance” was given to him by Ms. Lerner’s office as to the desired result — i.e., that the application was to be denied. All the while, Democrats maintained that there was no intentional political targeting.

Ms. Lerner, in direct contravention of federal law, e-mailed large collections of confidential taxpayer files from her IRS e-mail account to her personal account and back again. Given that the IRS has been intentionally leaking confidential taxpayer information about conservative activist groups — notably the National Organization for Marriage, which organized the Proposition 8 gay-marriage ballot issue in California — her actions here are suspect: One obvious reason to send files to a personal account is to be able to distribute them without producing evidence of having done so through her official account. In any case, intentionally making confidential records vulnerable to exposure by sending them to her personal account is against the law, leak or no leak.

Ms. Lerner, in direct contravention of federal law, lied to the inspector general during the office’s investigation of her agency’s shenanigans. Specifically, she lied about when the targeting of conservative organizations began and she lied about an “uptick” in applications, a fiction she used to justify the IRS’s categorical targeting of tea-party groups and similar organizations. She knew that there was no “uptick,” because she had inquired about it and had been told that there were no agency records to suggest such an assertion. She told the “uptick” story anyway. She told investigators that there was no targeting when there was, that standards hadn’t changed when they had, and that the investigations of conservative groups were routine when they weren’t.

According to recently released documents, Ms. Lerner was quite aware of how hard she was working on behalf of the political interests of Barack Obama: She joked with her colleagues that she should go to work running the Washington office of Organizing for America, the Obama campaign’s standing army. And why shouldn’t she have campaigned openly for Barack Obama — a good deal of the rest of the IRS were already doing so: Employees at IRS offices from Texas to Kentucky either already have been sanctioned by the Office of Special Counsel or are under investigation for violations of the Hatch Act, which forbids the use of official resources for campaign purposes. These are not borderline cases: One IRS agent had taxpayers chanting the president’s name, another treated taxpayers to a tirade about how Republicans intended to take American women “back 40 years.” How much more of this went on is impossible to know.

Lois Lerner should be prosecuted for her misdeeds, and if elected officials or members of the Obama administration suborned those misdeeds, they belong in the prison cell next to her. The IRS is an agency with extraordinary powers, and its agents should be held to the very highest standard. But Ms. Lerner would fail to meet even such modest standards as “Don’t abuse your power” and “Don’t lie to investigators about it when you get caught abusing your power.” If she escapes prison, it will be a national scandal. Using the IRS as a political weapon constitutes more than a “smidgen” of corruption — it is a serious crime and an intolerable assault on the legitimacy of the federal government.

The Editors comprise the senior editorial staff of the National Review magazine and website.

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