I don’t know if the IRS’ targeting of conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status is “the most dangerous in U.S. history,” as Monica Crowley charged on the Fox Business Channel 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 it is to dismiss Crowley’s argument.
“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 brought on 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.”
Among those everyday Americans is Houston business owner Catherine Engelbrecht, who, shortly after she founded True the Vote – organized for the purpose of tamping down voter fraud – began receiving ominous, if not downright threatening, letters from the office of U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat and the ranking member of the House Committee on Government Oversight, possibly 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, the BATF, OSHA, Texas EPA and “the IRS, of course.”
“For 16 years being in business, in private industry, prior to filing that nonprofit application, we’d never had any interest shown by any of these agencies,” Engelbrecht said. “But after I filed that nonprofit application, people like Elijah Cummings began to take interest.”
To date, she says, she has endured 25 “audits, investigations or inquiries” into her personal, business and nonprofit affairs.
It was against this background that Issa lodged a complaint of collusion between Cummings and the IRS over True the Vote. 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.”
Cummings and his office resumed their inquiries into True the Vote 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 to report, Lerner responded, “thanks – check tomorrow please.” A few days later, Cummings received the IRS documents he’d been seeking.
All along, Cumming has denied communicating with the IRS, going to far as to call True the Vote’s attorney a liar for having suggested such a thing. Now we know better.
It’s all part of a larger scandal that, as Crowley says, has alarming ramifications: a powerful, scary federal agency using its muscle to harass and intimidate groups whose politics are regarded as a threat by 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 Rover and others.
Following an extraordinary vote by Ways and Means to release taxpayer information, we learned the following about Lerner, nicely summarized Friday by Wall Street Journal columnist Kimberley Strassel:
“[S]he 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 if the facts completely support 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 description than it is to President Obama’s.