IRS scandal update: Emails recently released through a Freedom of Information request seem to indicate that former IRS official Lois Lerner improperly contacted the US Department of Justice about whether Tea Party groups could be criminally prosecuted for "lying" on their applications about the scope of their political activities.
Although the details can understandably be confusing to the average American, the Internal Revenue Service stands accused of using a Nixon-style enemies list to go after political opponents of the Obama administration. Over the past year, the agency has been less than forthcoming if not stonewalling in producing documents related to the scandal.
The House of Representatives Oversight and Government Reform Committee has already voted to hold Lerner in contempt over her prior refusal to answer questions posed in two separate hearing about targeting of conservative political groups.
Before she retired, Lerner -- who told the news media when the scandal originally broke that she wasn't good at math despite working for the tax collecting agency -- was in charge of the office that improperly subjected tax-exempt status applications from Tea Party and other politically conservative groups to heavy scrutiny and intrusive questioning. "On May 10, 2013, Lerner, then the agency's director of the Tax Exempt and Government Entities Division, revealed that the IRS was targeting conservative groups, slow-walking or denying their applications. Three days later the inspector general for the Department of the Treasury released a report concluding that the IRS was using 'inappropriate criteria' in reviewing tax-exempt status applications."
Many observers believe that the IRS harassment of politically conservative and libertarian groups in the run-up to the 2012 presidential election -- which now includes allegations of improper colluding among government agencies -- constituted voter suppression because regulators violated these groups' constitutionally protected freedom of speech. As such, they thereby prevented them from mobilizing. Various prominent individuals who were Obama administrations critics also found themselves audited out of the blue.
The Justice Department is supposedly conducting an investigation into the IRS handling or mishandling of hundreds of such Tea Party applications, although very few of the victims of IRS harassment even now have been contacted by FBI agents. Justice has also been unwilling to appoint a independent prosecutor and instead is handling the matter in-house, supposedly supervised by an Obama campaign donor, which doesn't inspire a lot of confidence in an impartial outcome.
Moreover, even though the DOJ probe is still ongoing, President Obama said on national TV on Super Bowl Sunday that there wasn't a "smidgen" of corruption in how the IRS went after Tea Party and other conservative groups.
In another development, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) -- who has spent a lot of time feuding with Oversight Committee chair Darryl Issa (R-Calif.) over how the hearings have been run and moreover trying to short-circuit the House investigation -- may have also been involved in improper targeting activities. "New IRS emails released by the House Oversight Committee show staff working for Democratic Ranking Member Elijah Cummings communicated with the IRS multiple times between 2012 and 2013 about voter fraud prevention group True the Vote. True the Vote was targeted by the IRS after applying for tax exempt status more than two years ago. Further, information shows the IRS and Cummings' staff asked for nearly identical information from True the Vote President Catherine Engelbrecht about her organization, indicating coordination and improper sharing of confidential taxpayer information."
Attorney Cleta Mitchell has filed an ethics complaint against Cummings on behalf of Englebrecht. Cummings previously denied being involved in any targeting of True the Vote.
Englebrecht called revelations of Cummings alleged involvement as "the tip of a very ugly iceberg."
Mitchell has also pointed out that Cummings was among several Democrats calling for IRS Nixon-style scrutiny of right-of-center groups:
Lois Lerner and the top brass at the IRS came to see its role as somehow the enforcement arm of the Democratic Party and Democratic members of Congress and the White House and they began to carry out these activities to pursue conservative groups because these politicians were demanding it. All of these people, Lois Lerner, all of them, they have civil service protection and the only difference between what happened in Watergate when Richard Nixon asked the IRS to go after his political enemies was when Richard Nixon asked, they refused. When these Democratic politicians said, 'Go do something about these conservative groups because they're challenging us and we don't like what they're saying about us,' the IRS took it upon itself to do their bidding to try and silence these groups."