Some figures on the left have aggressively sought to dismiss the seriousness of the renewed IRS scandal. Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Tex.) captured this mood at one recent Capitol Hill hearing when he suggested that after voicing suspicions that the loss of emails might not be accidental, his GOP colleagues might go on next to quiz the Service’s leadership about the president’s birth certificate and space aliens in Roswell, N.M. It’s not a “serious inquiry,” Rep. Doggett said: “I believe it’s an endless conspiracy theory here.”
And yet many Americans who do not believe in space aliens do question the IRS’s account of what has happened. While we covered the story a year ago as well as more recently, this might make a good time to recapitulate why.
The IRS grants 501 (c)(4) nonprofit status (less favorable than (c)(3) status, which affords charitable tax deductibility to donors) to a wide array of “social welfare” organizations, many, like the ACLU, with a definite ideological valence. In recent years the status has been sought and obtained by groups whose missions are closely related to campaign and electoral politics, most notably Organizing for America, whose role on the national scene is to support President Obama’s messaging. Not surprisingly this has excited controversy about whether the eligibility rules for (c)(4) status are being drawn in the right place. Most advocates however profess to believe that whatever the right set of rules, they should apply alike to both sides in our political life.
By March 2012 the Associated Press was reporting on a flurry of bizarre and seemingly unprecedented IRS demands that some (c)(4) applicants of a right-of-center valence provide extraordinarily burdensome and intrusive documentation of their activities — things like copies of all books and literature distributed to participants, transcripts of leaders’ radio appearances and live speeches, printouts of all Facebook and Twitter output, and so forth, along with donor lists and names of family members. The Service was also delaying groups’ approval for long periods, in fact seemingly indefinitely, without explanation or a firm denial that could be appealed to a court. Defenders of the agency subsequently put out a search for left-of-center groups that might have run into similar treatment, and although they did manage to turn up a few tales of bureaucratic red tape and rigmarole, they were unable to come up with anything remotely comparable.
IRS nonprofit chief Lois Lerner at first denied any targeting, then sought to blame rogue employees at the IRS Cincinnati office for it. But emails soon emerged clearly indicating guidance by high-level IRS managers in Washington. Lerner then declined to testify, asserting her Fifth Amendment privilege against admissions exposing herself to criminal liability.
Through the ensuing scandal, there was little hard proof that Lerner and other IRS insiders had coordinated the targeting with political actors outside the agency — on Capitol Hill, say, or in party organizations, or the White House — although a number of details on the record, such as frequent White House visits by agency insiders and coordination with outside figures on press messaging, made for suggestive circumstantial evidence. To establish that political operatives or officials outside the agency were aware of targeting at the time, or even perhaps instigated or directed it, would be to blow the scandal wide-open, perhaps threatening the careers of well-known public figures. If any email documentation of such coordination is to be found, it would most likely be in the “external” (outside the agency) emails of Lois Lerner and other key players in the IRS targeting effort.
Those are the same emails that have now mysteriously vanished due to a reported crash of Lerner’s computer, a crash that happened ten days after the House Ways & Means Committee wrote her to inquire about (c)(4) tax exemption denials*. Emails of six other key IRS employees are also said to have vanished in a series of coincidental crashes.
This week, as if to confirm that shabby treatment of politically disliked adversaries was not unheard-of at the Lerner-era IRS, the agency agreed to pay $50,000 to the National Organization for Marriage over an episode in which persons unknown leaked its confidential return and donor list to its ideological adversary, the Human Rights Campaign, which proceeded to have it published. And the Ways & Means Committee has just released an email indicating that when an invitation intended for a Congressional opponent wound up by mistake in the hands of Lois Lerner, her immediate reaction was to wonder whether it might be used to generate an IRS investigation embarrassing to him.
After all these revelations, is it really those who distrust the agency’s leadership whose gullibility should be compared to that of flying saucer cultists? Or is are the credulous true believers the ones who insist that the latest jaw-dropping revelations from the Service are sure to have an innocent explanation, though the earlier ones did not? (cross-posted, with minor changes, at Cato at Liberty)
*An earlier version of this post described the letter to Lerner as being about targeting; Glenn Kessler at the Washington Post has disputed whether that is an accurate way to describe the contents of the letter, which concerned a plan to audit conservative (c)(4) donors. Ian Tuttle responds to Kessler here.