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The Moral Authority of the IRS Has Been Diminished

Years ago I read a book by a man who had been the public defender in the bad old days of Soviet Russia. There were horrors aplenty, all worthy of a Kafka novel. One of the things that has stuck with me ever since was his belief that he wasn’t defending his clients against just the Soviet apparatchik. He also had to defend against the expectations of jurors who ‘knew’ what the government wanted; even when there was no communication from any level of the Nomenklatura.

Such kangaroo courts didn’t require any direct intervention from Soviet officials at all, he wrote. That is during a trial jurors didn’t need to get something like a telegram from the Politiburo to know how to rule. They convicted defendants based on what they thought the Politburo and the Party would want them to do.

These memories came back to me over the weekend when I learned that Internal Revenue Service (IRS) officials in the Cincinnati offices in charge on non-profit were giving unwarranted scrutiny to applications of conservative and pro-Israel causes applying for 501(c)(4) status. In the United States causes have to jump through a handful of hoops to get non-profit status from the IRS. They have to incorporate in a U.S. State. They have to get a federal tax I.D. number. To offer tax deductable donations nonprofits have get a letter of determination from the IRS which involves an application process.

On Friday, May 10, Lois Lerner, head of the IRS division that oversees tax-exempt groups admitted to attorneys at a tax conference organized by American Bar Association that “low-level” functionaries at the IRS had flagged 501(c)(4) applications that had words like “patriot,” “Tea Party,” or had missions that sought to educate the citizenry on the Constitution, or had statements criticizing “how the country is being run.” Groups with “progressive” in their name or mission got no such scrutiny.

In some cases the IRS harried applicants by requiring them to submit donor lists and made document requests about the activities of the family members of board members and officers, and even demanded the reading lists of board members. All of which is very irregular and smacks of harassment.

The IRS issued its apologies and mea culpas in advance of a report on the matter due out this week from the Treasury Department’s inspector general. The acting IRS Commissioner Steven Miller writes that while “mistakes were made” there was no political motivation. 

Be that as it may, Miller knew about the targeting in May 2012 and twice denied himself the opportunity to report it to Congress when directly asked about IRS oversight of 501(c)(4) groups. Lois Lerner knew about it in July 2011 and didn’t report it to Congress when she was asked.

The Washington Post and a chorus of others have called for a thorough Congressional investigation of the malfeasance. Attorney General Eric Holder has launched his own investigation. Bully to all of them.

White House spokesman Jay Carney was quick to remind reporters that the IRS Commissioner during the time the singling out took place was Bush appointee Doug Shulman.

I doubt any investigation will tie the White House to any of this. But Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Richard Nixon both employed the IRS against political enemies. I doubt that’s the case here. But bear in mind that such behavior was not only wrong, but criminal.

Instead I think it’s something more invidious. It’s possible that these “low level” IRS employees tagged conservative causes for unjust scrutiny because they thought it would please the Obama administration.

No matter your politics, this is wrong. Of necessity, the IRS must be non-partisan in its enforcement of America’s tax laws. To do otherwise, the Washington Post editorializes, “threatens the trust and the voluntary cooperation of citizens upon which this democracy depends.”

In singling out certain groups, IRS employees put their thumbs on the scales of justice. Fairness and uprightness were defenestrated. President Obama got it right. The actions of the IRS were “outrageous.” Trust has been lost. The moral authority of the IRS has been diminished. The cause of good governance has taken a bruising body blow.

If, as I suspect, this was just functionaries trying to please the Obama administration then people need to lose their jobs.

If the acts were directed from above, then criminal law was broken and people need to go to jail.

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