Investigate IRS conduct
A full audit of the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of conservative groups is expected to be released this week and should reveal in more detail the government’s attempt to single them out for review. But it doesn’t take an audit to know the IRS’s conduct outlined in the initial disclosures is counter to the fundamental freedom to exercise political speech without fear of government retribution. Republicans are right to call for a broad investigation into the IRS and to hold hearings where those responsible can be held accountable. In this era of overblown crises driven by partisan agendas, it can be difficult to know when there is fire behind the smoke. This is not one of those cases. The IRS searched keywords for certain groups applying for tax-exempt status. Those words included “Tea Party” and “Patriot,” among others.According to a New York Times report, the draft of the Treasury Department’s audit expected this week includes a timeline that shows the IRS’s initial explanations fall short of the truth. In addition, President Obama’s statement Sunday characterizing the conduct as limited to a few low-level IRS staffers signals a greater desire to diminish the furor over the conduct rather than to get a full accounting of what happened. The 501(c)(4) tax-exempt status that gives tax breaks to nonprofits is open to abuse. The IRS is right to review whether groups seeking that status are operating within the law, which allows for political lobbying provided the group’s primary purpose is to promote “social welfare,” not a partisan agenda. But according to press accounts, the IRS office in Cincinnati began a concerted effort in March 2010 to single out conservative groups for review rather than all groups seeking the tax-exempt status. A little more than a year later, according to the New York Times account of the timeline included in the pending audit, the head of the IRS’s nonprofit unit was briefed on the program. A few days later, the reviews were broadened to include all organizations, eliminating the language targeting conservative groups. That was a correct response. But when asked last week about her knowledge of the program, Lois Lerner, the head of the IRS’s tax-exempt division, said she was unaware of the conduct until reading news accounts last week. That seems to contradict the timeline in the audit that shows she was briefed in June 2011. That leaves three possibilities. The timeline is in error and she never knew what was happening on her watch; she knew and is trying to contain the damage; or she was briefed two years ago but forgot about a significant policy change. None of those possibilities fosters much confidence. It’s impossible to contemplate IRS abuses without thinking of Richard Nixon and his use of the agency to intimidate political enemies. There is a big difference here in that Nixon orchestrated that IRS abuse while it appears the White House was unaware of this conduct, although the IRS looked to be aggressively defending the administration’s liberal agenda. The underlying fear that those in power will use a government agency to punish their enemies has been awakened by this conduct. And that alone is reason enough to have an investigation and hold hearings. The public needs to know a political cause can be supported without fear of retribution, particularly if that cause challenges those in power.