P.S. Related, karmically at least: ex-IRS ethics office lawyer disbarred for ethics violations [Caron/TaxProf]
The IRS scandal is a genuine scandal, for sure; efforts to portray it as merely a “scandal” within quotation marks, as by the L.A. Times’s Michael Hiltzik, are well answered by Megan McArdle, Patterico, Ed Krayewski, and (implicitly in advance) by this Josh Barro column exploding the notion that 501(c)4 status was somehow intended only for volunteer fire departments and the like and not for politically engaged citizen groups.
Once the scandal momentum gets going, however, people start in on all sorts of efforts to connect dots that may not have any necessary connection or even qualify as dots at all. Example: at the Daily Caller this morning, reporter Patrick Howley is out with a story headlined, “Embattled IRS official Lois Lerner’s husband’s law firm has strong Obama connections.”
Curious, I read on to see which law firm with strong Obama connections Lerner’s husband, an attorney named Michael Miles, is a member of. It turned out to be Sutherland, Asbill & Brennan, a pillar of the Atlanta legal establishment known for its strong tax practice.
Sutherland, Asbill & Brennan is a so-called BigLaw firm. Per the American Lawyer’s profile, it has 387 lawyers and represents all sorts of clients, with an emphasis on corporate work across a wide range of industries.
So what’s the evidence that Sutherland has “strong Obama connections” or is tight with White House Democrats? Here it is: according to Howley, the firm:
hosted a voter registration organizing event for the 2012 Obama re-election campaign, praised President Obama’s policy work, and had one of its partners appointed by Obama to a key ambassadorship.
Really? In a 387-lawyer BigLaw firm, those are the strongest Obama links Howley was able to come up with? As with virtually all BigLaw firms, Sutherland has attorneys active in both parties who host events favorable to one side or the other. It took me only a minute or two on search engines to confirm that Sutherland lawyers and alumni are quite successful in landing prominent appointments under Republicans. Here’s a 14-year Sutherland alum (though he’d moved on to other employers in the interim) who served as National Executive Director of Lawyers for Bush-Cheney in 2000 and went on to a distinguished career as ambassador appointed by that administration. Here’s a Sutherland attorney (“top lawyer at the Pentagon for six years”) nominated by President George W. Bush to the Fourth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.
Of course, some BigLaw firms do have a distinct coloration that falls toward one side of the political spectrum while tolerating the occasional maverick from the other. Is this true of Sutherland? I consulted the Open Secrets database and found that in the last election cycle the firm’s lawyers donated $41,700 to Mitt Romney and $35,413 to Barack Obama. In Congressional races, the firm’s lawyers donated $38,040 to Republican candidates and $25,350 to Democrats. The biggest recipient by far in the Congressional races? Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who got $16,250 from Sutherland lawyers. Overall, these figures would rank Sutherland as not a particularly heavy hitter among law firms in federal donations. Twenty other law firms’ attorneys gave upwards of $1.2 million in the last election cycle, mostly leaning much more toward the Democratic side than did the donations from Sutherland’s attorneys.
I suppose “Embattled IRS official Lois Lerner’s husband’s law firm has strong Ted Cruz connections” would have made for too confusing a headline on a Daily Caller lead story.
Paul Caron at the justly admired TaxProf blog has been patiently documenting the IRS scandal since the start and his daily link roundups are now as relevant as they have ever been. More: CNN, John Hinderaker/PowerLine, A. Barton Hinkle (finger of responsibility points at Congress), Peter Suderman. Earlier here, etc.
Update: IRS said on Tuesday that computer crashes swallowed without a trace the emails of several other employees central to the nonprofit-targeting probe, and admitted it waited months to tell congressional investigators that it did not expect to produce Lois Lerner’s emails.
- Sixth Circuit to IRS: stop stonewalling the political-targeting-of-nonprofits scandal [Jonathan Adler, James Taranto/WSJ “Best of the Web”, Joely Friedman/Capital Research Center (see Table 1), my take on the Lois Lerner scandal two years ago]
- “What’s the most ridiculous thing you could imagine a city doing?” “Dunno…paying people not to shoot each other?” [Washington Post on so-called Richmond plan]
- Never mind, prior art: archery company drops foam-arrow patent case, still pursuing other claims against LARPer [ArsTechnica, earlier]
- In New Jersey, “Possessing Air Pellet Gun During Film Shoot Can Get You Many Years in Prison” [Brian Doherty; earlier on tender mercies of New Jersey gun control in Brian Aitken, Shaneen Allen, and Gordon VanGilder cases]
- Georgia: “Woman Walks Into Ladder, Sues, Wins Huge Jury Verdict” [Bob Dorigo Jones]
- New allegation on 20-year-old Vera Coking story: Trump offered work to lawyer representing her in limousine-lot eminent domain case [Washington Post] Magnifies the power of celebrity: “Campaign Finance Restrictions Help Trump” [John McGinnis, Liberty and Law]
- Former NYT Peking correspondent Richard Bernstein, who now co-owns two nail salons, challenges Times blockbuster on prevalence of labor exploitation at NYC salons [New York Review of Books, Elizabeth Nolan Brown and followup, Times rebuttal. More: Bernstein rejoinder]
- More details on how studios used Mississippi attorney general’s office as cut-out against Google [Mike Masnick, TechDirt, earlier here and here, more on AG Jim Hood]
- Of course licensing laws “are only there to protect consumers and are enforced in a totally neutral way that has nothing to do with viewpoints or political pull (lol).” [Coyote on Boston mayor’s “not welcome in our town” message to Donald Trump]
- Speaking of Donald Trump, would his lawyer threaten litigation to intimidate reporter Tim Mak? Only in a totally classy way [Daily Beast, S.E. Cupp/New York Daily News (Cohen, 2011: “I’m going to come at you, grab you by the neck and I’m not going to let you go until I’m finished”), earlier from the vaults on Trump’s use of litigation]
- Things class-action lawyers sue over: “Beggin’ Strips Don’t Have Enough Bacon” [Reuters, New York Post]
- As Lois Lerner targeting scandal drags on, time for Congress to impeach IRS officials? [Mike Rappaport, Liberty and Law]
- Welcome to AFFH-land: Bharara, on behalf of feds, says Westchester County should pay for not squeezing Chappaqua hard enough to approve housing project [Journal-News, earlier here and here]
Like Lois Lerner and so many others in Washington, we’ve suffered a computer data loss. In our case we were able to recover most of it, the only gap being some data that was entered onto the site over the course of the day today, which unfortunately includes most of today’s reader comments. Where appropriate, I’ll plan on emailing persons who left comments to propose re-posting them, but there are no guarantees that comments responding to other comments will wind up in the right order.
- Bruce Braley’s “farmer” gaffe might hurt long-term because it fits into a wider pattern about the would-be Iowa senator [John Tabin/Rare, earlier]
- Disbarred ex-D.A. and longtime Overlawyered favorite Andrew Thomas running for GOP Arizona governor nomination [Phoenix New Times]
- Did Wisconsin John Doe probe include email dragnet? Yahoo billed DA for “costs associated with subpoena compliance” [M.D. Kittle/Wisconsin Reporter, more]
- “We need a Democratic sweep. Stay focused.” — work-hours tweet by former Federal Election Commission enforcement lawyer whose hard drive, like that of her former FEC boss Lois Lerner, now tragically missing [House Oversight report, Daily Caller]
- Texas hurricane claims: megadonor Steve Mostyn “successfully drags state senator into TWIA lawsuit” [Legal NewsLine, TLR]
- No more pay to play? Two Ohio lawmakers seek to curb campaign giving by law firms hired by state’s attorney general [Aurora Advocate]
- Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s research on medical bankruptcy may be shaky, but it’s hard to fault her taste in English sports cars [Ira Stoll, American Spectator]
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.
I’ve got an update on the fast-developing scandal of evidence destruction at the IRS in my new Cato post (earlier). If not for reading Kim Strassel and her colleagues at the Wall Street Journal, I might not have learned that Lois Lerner’s emails got wiped from her hard drive by forces unknown about 10 days after the letter arrived from House Ways & Means inquiring into targeting of political opponents.
Since the new round of disclosures in the IRS scandal broke a week ago, the WSJ has shown itself willing to dig in a way that many other prestige press institutions have not. “People used to ask how Watergate might have turned out if the press had sided with Nixon instead of against him. Thanks to the work of Strassel and her WSJ colleagues, let’s hope we never find out.”
The Economist covers the story in this commentary. Our tag on evidence spoliation and document retention — lawyers among our readers will be familiar with how very seriously these concepts are taken in the world of litigation — is here.
Welcome readers: Glenn Reynolds/Instapundit.
Our most heavily trafficked post in April 2013 was “Overlawyered: Now a Cato Institute blog.” The most commented-on posts were “Teen throws concrete onto highway, truck driver gravely injured“, “‘Lance Armstrong Lied, Cheated, Doped…’,” and “Great moments in law school outreach.” (Kathy Boudin at NYU)
May’s most clicked-on post was “Daily Caller fires a blank at Lois Lerner.” The most commented-on posts were “Government is simply the name for the things we do together…” (IRS targeting scandal), the Daily Caller post above, and “Liability for the Boston Marathon bombing?”