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The IRS Can't Plead Incompetence

If the agency didn't know what it was doing, it wouldn't have done it so well.

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Washington, Jun 7, 2013 | comments

By Peggy Noonan

Quickly: Everyone agrees the Internal Revenue Service is, under current governmental structures, the proper agency to determine the legitimacy of applications for tax-exempt status. Everyone agrees the IRS has the duty to scrutinize each request, making sure that the organization meets relevant criteria. Everyone agrees groups requesting tax-exempt status must back up their requests with truthful answers and honest information.

Some ask, "Don't conservatives know they have to be questioned like anyone else?" Yes, they do. Their grievance centers on the fact they have not been. They were targeted, and their rights violated.


The most compelling evidence of that is what happened to the National Organization for Marriage. Its chairman, John Eastman, testified before the House Ways and Means Committee, and the tale he told was different from the now-familiar stories of harassment and abuse.


In March 2012, the organization, which argues the case for traditional marriage, found out its confidential tax information had been obtained by the Human Rights Campaign, one of its primary opponents in the marriage debate. The HRC put the leaked information on its website—including the names of NOM donors. NOM not only has the legal right to keep its donors' names private, it has to, because when contributors' names have been revealed in the past they have been harassed, boycotted and threatened. This is a free speech right, one the Supreme Court upheld in 1958 after the state of Alabama tried to compel the NAACP to surrender its membership list.


The NOM did a computer forensic investigation and determined that its leaked IRS information had come from within the IRS itself. If it was leaked by a worker or workers within the IRS it would be a federal crime, with penalties including up to five years in prison.


In April 2012, the NOM asked the IRS for an investigation. The inspector general's office gave them a complaint number. Soon they were in touch. Even though the leaked document bore internal IRS markings, the inspector general decided that maybe the document came from within the NOM. The NOM demonstrated that was not true.


For the next 14 months they heard nothing about an investigation. By August, 2012, NOM was filing Freedom of Information Act requests trying to find out if there was one. The IRS stonewalled. Their "latest nonresponse response," said Mr. Eastman, claimed that the law prohibiting the disclosure of confidential tax returns also prevents disclosure of information about who disclosed them. Eastman called this "Orwellian." He said that what NOM experienced "suggests that problems at the IRS are potentially far more serious" than the targeting of conservative organizations for scrutiny.


In hearings Thursday, Rep. Elijah Cummings, a Maryland Democrat who disagrees with the basic stand of the NOM, said that what had happened to the organization was nonetheless particularly offensive to him. The new IRS director agreed he would look into it.


Almost a month after the IRS story broke—a month after the high-profile scandal started to unravel after a botched spin operation that was meant to make the story go away—no one has been able to produce a liberal or progressive group that was targeted and thwarted by the agency's tax-exemption arm in the years leading up to the 2012 election. The House Ways and Means Committee this week held hearings featuring witnesses from six of the targeted groups. Before the hearing, Republicans invited Democrats to include witnesses from the other side. The Democrats didn't produce one. The McClatchy news service also looked for nonconservative targets. "Virtually no organizations perceived to be liberal or nonpartisan have come forward to say they were unfairly targeted." it reported. Liberal groups told McClatchy "they thought the scrutiny they got was fair."


Some sophisticated Democrats who've worked in executive agencies have suggested to me that the story is simpler than it seem—that the targeting wasn't a political operation, an expression of political preference enforced by an increasingly partisan agency, its union and assorted higher-ups. A former senior White House official, and a very bright man, said this week he didn't believe it was mischief but incompetence. But why did all the incompetent workers misunderstand their jobs and their mission in exactly the same way? Wouldn't general incompetence suggest both liberal and conservative groups would be abused more or less equally, or in proportion to the number of their applications? Wouldn't a lot of left-wing groups have been caught in the incompetence net? Wouldn't we now be hearing honest and aggrieved statements from indignant progressives who expected better from their government?


Some person or persons made the decision to target, harass, delay and abuse. Some person or persons communicated the decision. Some persons executed them. Maybe we're getting closer. John McKinnon and Dionne Searcey of The Wall Street Journal reported this week that IRS employees in the Cincinnati office—those are the ones tax-exempt unit chief Lois Lerner accused of going rogue, and attempted to throw under the bus—have told congressional investigators that agency officials in Washington helped direct the probe of the tea-party groups. Mr. McKinnon and Ms. Searcey reported that one of the workers told investigators an IRS lawyer in Washington, Carter Hull, "closely oversaw her work and suggested some of the questions asked applicants."


"The IRS didn't respond to a request for comment," they wrote. There really is an air about the IRS that they think they are The Untouchables.


Some have said the IRS didn't have enough money to do its job well. But a lack of money isn't what makes you target political groups—a directive is what makes you do that. In any case, this week's bombshell makes it clear the IRS, from 2010 to 2012, the years of prime targeting, did have money to improve its processes. During those years they spent $49 million on themselves—on conferences and gatherings, on $1,500 hotel rooms and self-esteem presentations. "Maliciously self-indulgent," said chairman Darrell Issa at Thursday's House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearings.


What a culture of entitlement, and what confusion it reveals about what motivates people. You want to increase the morale, cohesion and self-respect of IRS workers? Allow them to work in an agency that is famous for integrity, fairness and professionalism. That gives people spirit and guts, not 'Star Trek" parody videos.


Finally, this week Russell George, the inspector general whose audit confirmed the targeting of conservative groups, mentioned, as we all do these days, Richard Nixon's attempt to use the agency to target his enemies. But part of that Watergate story is that Nixon failed. Last week David Dykes of the Greenville (S.C.) News wrote of meeting with 93-year-old Johnnie Mac Walters, head of the IRS almost 40 years ago, in the Nixon era. Mr. Dykes quoted Tim Naftali, former director of the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, who told him the IRS wouldn't do what Nixon asked: "It didn't happen, not because the White House didn't want it to happen, but because people like Johnnie Walters said 'no.'"


That was the IRS doing its job—attempting to be above politics, refusing to act as the muscle for a political agenda.


Man—those were the days.

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