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The Right Stuff: Mounting alarm could prove “most dangerous scandal”

Tom Jackson’s conservative opinion column is published on Sundays. The Right Stuff blog is updated throughout the week at TBO.com.

I don’t know if the IRS’ targeting of conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status is “the most dangerous scandal in U.S. history,” as Monica Crowley charged on the Fox Business Channel on Thursday. After all, didn’t President Obama tell us back on Super Bowl Sunday there wasn’t “even a smidgen of corruption”? And when’s the last time the President fibbed to us?

Still, the more the revelations mount, the harder Crowley is to dismiss.

“In the past when the IRS was used as a political weapon,” she said, “it was always elites against elites. So it was the Kennedys against Richard Nixon or Lyndon Johnson against Richard Nixon, or Richard Nixon merely suggesting it be used against another political opponent.”

OK, OK, late in his life when he was rehabilitating a reputation poisoned by a fairly nasty scandal of his own, Nixon employed Crowley as an aide. Even so:

“In this case, it’s elites vs. regular Americans, everyday Americans who just wanted their voices to be heard, and who just wanted freedom of expression. That’s what makes this so dangerous.”

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Among those everyday Americans is Houston business owner Catherine Engelbrecht, who, soon after she founded True the Vote — organized to tamp down voter fraud — began receiving ominous letters from the office of U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat and the ranking member of the House Committee on Government Oversight, better known as Darrell Issa’s committee.

The upshot was a relentless series of investigations by a regular “alphabet soup” of government agencies, including the FBI, BATF, OSHA, Texas EPA and “the IRS, of course,” amounting to 25 “audits, investigations and inquiries” into her assorted affairs. Instructively, Engelbrecht said, “For 16 years being in business ... prior to filing that nonprofit application, we’d never had any interest shown by any of these agencies.”

It was against this background Issa lodged a complaint of collusion between Cummings and the IRS. Agency material obtained last week includes virtually identical emails sent only days apart in October 2012 by Cummings’ staffers and the IRS, both notices requesting “a copy of [True the Vote’s] volunteer registration form,” “… the process you use to assign volunteers,” “how you keep your volunteers in teams,” and “how your volunteers are deployed … following the training they receive by you.”

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Cummings and his office resumed their inquiries in January 2013; by now, Lois Lerner, the disgraced former chief of Exempt Organizations, was involved. At one point Lerner asked her deputy in an email, “Did we find anything?” Told there was nothing new, Lerner responded, “thanks — check tomorrow please.” A few days later, Cummings received the IRS documents he’d been seeking.

Cummings has denied steadily communicating with the IRS, going as far as to call True the Vote’s attorney a liar for suggesting such a thing.

It’s all part of a larger scandal with alarming ramifications: a powerful, scary federal agency using its muscle to harass and intimidate groups whose politics challenge the current administration. This week, for instance, House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp sent a letter to the Justice Department recommending a criminal investigation of Lerner in her rules-breaking pursuit of Crossroads GPS, founded by GOP strategist Karl Rove and others.

Following an extraordinary vote by Ways and Means to release taxpayer information, we learned the following, nicely summarized Friday by Wall Street Journal columnist Kimberley Strassel:

“[Lerner] took it upon herself to track down the status of Crossroads, to give grief to an IRS unit for not having audited it, to apparently direct another unit to deny it tax-exempt status, and to try to influence the appeals process.

“We know, too, that Ms. Lerner did some of this in contravention of IRS policy, for instance involving herself in an audit decision that was supposed to be left to a special review committee. We have the story of a powerful bureaucrat targeting an organization and circumventing IRS safeguards against political or personal bias. That ought to mortify all members of Congress. That Democrats seem not to care gets to another point. ...

“Democrats can’t refute the facts, so instead they are howling about all manner of trivia — the release of names, the ‘secret’ vote to release taxpayer information. But it remains that they are putting themselves on record in support of IRS officials who target groups, circumvent rules, and potentially break the law.”

We still don’t know whether the evidence completely supports Crowley’s claim, just as it’s hard to predict an avalanche from the first chunks of tumbling snow. But the more we discover, the worse it gets. This much we know already. The truth is far closer to Crowley’s chilling description than it is to President Obama’s.

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