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The IRS scandal’s inconsistencies

August 07, 2013

Just three months ago, Lois G. Lerner, a senior official in the IRS’s tax-exempt organizations division, publicly admitted that the agency targeted taxpayers because of their political beliefs. Until that point, despite years of inquiries from Congress, the IRS had continued to deny that it was targeting taxpayers, even though officials had long known about the conduct. With the truth out about the targeting of tea party groups, Lerner, then-acting Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Commissioner Steven Miller and even the president’s own spokesman were quick to blame the entire episode on our front-line workers in Cincinnati.

Interview after interview of IRS employees by congressional investigators, however, began to expose the inconsistencies in the administration’s narrative. There were no “rogue” agents, only employees who followed the implicit or explicit directions of more senior IRS officials in Washington. When Washington told Cincinnati IRS employees to “hold” other tea party cases while officials in Washington scrutinized early “test cases” concerning the group, they did it. When Washington told them to assign a tea party case coordinator, they obliged. Employees also told investigators that the IRS chief counsel’s office was not, as the American people were first led to believe, merely involved in fixing problems once discovered. Employees explained, and one testified publicly, that this office — led by one of only two political appointees at the IRS — participated in scrutinizing and delaying tea party applications.

Since the “blame Cincinnati” narrative began to unravel, the White House and its allies have engaged in a flailing effort to put this scandal behind them. When the scandal was first revealed, the president promised the American people that the administration would “hold the responsible parties accountable.” Yet upon the direction of the president, new IRS acting Commissioner Daniel Werfel ordered a 30-day review, upon which Werfel claimed the agency found no “evidence of intentional wrongdoing by anyone in the IRS.”

How could a 30-day review by a new official credibly clear an entire agency after a year-long independent audit by the IRS’s inspector general had just found significant unanswered questions?

Working with the IRS, congressional Democrats then tried to sell Americans on a new rationale, that this was “not much of a scandal,” by trying to smear the inspector general and falsely equating routine scrutiny of progressive groups to tea party applications. The inspector general, however, stood his ground, countering that the facts still support the conclusion that tea party groups were systematically scrutinized at a level above and beyond other applicants. During the 27 months during which the IRS did not approve one application for tax-exempt status from a tea party group, the agency approved “perhaps dozens of applications from similar liberal and progressive groups,” according to a review by USA Today. Front-line IRS workers were not instructed to route progressive organizations to a special coordinator; these groups’ applications were simply processed through the general inventory.

Meanwhile, the White House has vacillated between indifference and acknowledgment of inappropriate IRS behavior. Consider this: On the same day President Obama bemoaned the “phony scandals” plaguing his administration, his chief spokesman, Jay Carney, allowed that “we need to get to the bottom of what happened at the IRS.” Which is it?

“Let’s just take the IRS scandal. The fact is, it’s far different than what you said,” MSNBC host Joe Scarborough recently reminded Carney.

The American people demand and deserve accountability from their government, not to live in fear of being subject to an audit or other extra scrutiny for reasons unrelated to the content of their filing. So far, the IRS and this administration have provided no assurances that oversight and accountability is in place to prevent such abuses from happening again.

The administration’s own partisan anti-tea party rhetoric, its evolving and inconsistent explanations and the IRS’s own unwillingness to fulfill the president’s promises of cooperation with our investigation have fueled skepticism about how dedicated they are to holding the responsible parties accountable.

We are committed to a thorough and fair investigation. Our committees are working to find out how this happened and how we can prevent any taxpayer from being targeted. The American people deserve to know that they have a government that works for them — not against them. The White House and the IRS should fully cooperate. It is the only way Americans can regain lost trust in this administration.