Apologists in the media and elsewhere falsely claim the scandal was just a bungle.
by Peggy Noonan
“Documents Show Liberals in I.R.S. Dragnet,” read the New York Times headline. “Dem: ‘Progressive’ Groups Were Also Targeted by IRS,” said U.S. News. The scandal has “evaporated into thin air,” bayed the excitable Andrew Sullivan. A breathlessly exonerative narrative swept the news media this week: that liberal groups had been singled out and, by implication, abused by the IRS, just as conservative groups had been. Therefore, the scandal wasn’t a scandal but a mere bungle—a nonpolitical series of unhelpful but innocent mistakes.
The problem with this story is that liberals were not caught in the IRS dragnet. Progressive groups were not targeted.
The claim that they had been rested mostly on an unclear, undated, highly redacted and not at all dispositive few pages from a “historical” BOLO (“be on the lookout”) list that apparently wasn’t even in use between May 2010 and May 2012, when most of the IRS harassment of conservative groups occurred.
The case isn’t closed, no matter how many people try to slam it shut.
On Wednesday Russell George, the Treasury inspector general whose original audit broke open the scandal, answered Rep. Sander Levin’s charge that the audit had ignored the targeting of progressives. In a letter released Thursday, Mr. George couldn’t have been clearer: The evidence showed conservative groups were singled out for abuse by the IRS, not liberal groups. While some liberal groups might have wound up on a BOLO list, the IRS did not target them. “We did not find evidence that the criteria you identified, labeled ‘Progressives,’ were used by the IRS to select potential political cases during the 2010 to 2012 timeframe we audited.” One hundred percent of the groups with “Tea Party,” “Patriot” or “9/12″ in their names were given extra scrutiny. “While we have multiple sources of information corroborating the use of Tea Party and other related criteria . . . including employee interviews, e-mails, and other documents, we found no indication in any of these other materials that ‘progressives’ was a term used to refer cases for scrutiny for political campaign intervention.”
According to a House Ways and Means Committee source, only seven of the 298 cases flagged by the IRS for extra scrutiny appeared to represent progressive causes. Not one of the seven was subject to harassment or abuse. Of the seven, only two were even sent follow-up questionnaires after their applications for tax exempt status were received. Neither of those two was asked inappropriate or invasive questions. And all seven saw their applications approved.
Conservative groups were treated differently, sent to a secondary review group after being flagged for scrutiny. They were subject to undue burdens and harassment—lengthy and invasive questions about donors and even prayer habits. There, in the secondary offices, some of them languished for years. “Some of them are still languishing,” said the source.
Danny Werfel, the acting head of the IRS, who manages at the same time to seem utterly well-meaning and highly evasive, further muddied the waters this week with a report on how the IRS is dealing with the aftermath of the inspector general’s audit. The report seemed to exonerate—”we have not found evidence of intentional wrongdoing at this time”—while admitting, further in: “We are digging deeper . . . to determine if there are instances of wrongdoing.” Which is it?
The report claims that part of the problem is that those who were targeted and abused didn’t “leverage” the Office of Taxpayer Advocate. But when Sen. John Cornyn contacted the local advocate’s office on behalf of the targeted Texas group True the Vote, his letter went unanswered for 11 months, and the eventual reply didn’t answer his questions. Forget how they’d treat an average citizen—that’s how they treat someone who has power.
The Werfel report makes no mention of the agency’s disclosure of confidential tax information—the leaking of the confidential tax and donor information of the National Organization for Marriage to the liberal Human Rights Campaign, and the leaking of the applications of conservative groups to a liberal news outfit.
More than 10 pages of the 53-page report are devoted to explaining how important the IRS is, and how excellent its workforce, in spite of lower budgets. There will be “negative repercussions” in future years, it darkly warns, “if our funding is inadequate.” That would have been a good place to mention the bonuses the IRS has been giving itself—almost a quarter-billion dollars the past few years. But no word of that. There is a muted mention of IRS boondoggles—the conferences, the suites, the “Star Trek” and “Gilligan’s Island” parody videos: There were “management lapses” that led to “wasteful spending.” “Many of these failures reflected a lack of judgment that, unfortunately, was not uncommon across the Federal Government in the years leading up to 2010.” Ah, that explains it.
The report is written in a way that is beyond bureaucratic. It is aggressively impenetrable and requires constant translation. “Information . . . shared with Congress was insufficient.” That means that when Congress asked IRS leadership if there was targeting going on, they lied and said no.
The report’s weaknesses were played out in person Thursday’s Ways and Means questioning of Mr. Werfel. Chairman Dave Camp said the report fails to address central issues. “Where is the internal oversight?”
Under questioning, Mr. Werfel admitted he had not interviewed his predecessors, who led the IRS in the scandal years, nor exemptions unit chief Lois Lerner.
Did Ms. Lerner attempt to cover up the targeting? “I don’t know the answer. . . . There’s no evidence on the record.”
Who was the person responsible for the Cincinnati office’s targeting of tea party groups? “We are looking into the facts and circumstances that arose.”
Who in Washington told IRS workers to hold up the applications? “I don’t know the answer to that question.”
How do you know the circumstances within the tax-exempt unit aren’t more widespread within the IRS? “I’ve asked them to look for evidence of problems.”
He did, however, agree that it appears tea-party groups were sent on for extra scrutiny. “We did not find evidence . . . we found no indication . . . that progressives was a term” used to alert screeners. So there’s that.
Who initiated the targeting of donors to apply gift taxes to their donations? This is “subject to further investigation.”
Who leaked the donor lists? “I do not have that information”
Who at the IRS was involved in covering up the patterns of abuse? That’s being investigated, too.
In fairness to Mr. Werfel, there are a lot of people he can’t talk to because they are talking to investigators. But if that’s the case, he can’t declare there’s no evidence of intentional wrongdoing by individuals at the IRS. How would he know?
Rep. Kevin Brady of Texas zeroed in at the end: “This report is a sham.”
No one has gotten near the bottom of this scandal. Journalists shouldn’t be trying to make the story disappear. The revenue-gathering arm of the federal government appears to be politically biased, corrupt in its actions, and unable to reform itself.
The only way to make that story go away is to get to the bottom of it and fully reveal it. It’s not a bungle, it’s a scandal.
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Peggy Noonan is a columnist at the Wall Street Journal.