Contrary to President Obama’s claim last week in a speech at Knox College, the political targeting of conservative organizations by the IRS is not a “phony scandal.” It is a real scandal that brings into focus the danger of an all-powerful federal government, particularly an agency like the IRS, which has extraordinary powers to seize and destroy the property, lives, and businesses of American citizens.
The Obama Administration continues to exhibit an almost schizophrenic attitude about the IRS scandal. White House spokesman Jay Carney had a heated exchange with MSNBC host Joe Scarborough in which Carney echoed the President’s claim that the IRS controversy is a “phony scandal,” yet when pressed about it, he admitted that the investigation needs “to get to the bottom of what happened at the IRS.”
Treasury Secretary Jack Lew exhibited the same schizophrenia on “Fox News Sunday” when he said what happened at the IRS was “unjustifiable” but that the “attempts to continue to raise this question” of possible political involvement “in the absence of any evidence” made this a “phony scandal.”
Secretary Lew does not seem to have read the recent testimony of Carter Hull, a 48-year veteran of the IRS, who said that the office of the IRS general counsel, William Wilkins, issued instructions that all applications from Tea Party groups would have to be reviewed by his office, a very unusual occurrence. Wilkins happens to be one of only two political appointees at the IRS, a Democratic donor, and an expert on tax compliance by nonprofit groups. He defended (pro bono) Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Obama’s former pastor, in a 2008 IRS investigation into the tax-exempt status of Wright’s church over his endorsement of Obama.
According to White House visitor logs, Wilkins met with President Obama in the White House on April 23, 2012. Wilkins’s boss, Douglas Shulman—the IRS commissioner and the other political appointee at the IRS—also visited the White House the following day. On April 25, 2012, Wilkins’s office sent the IRS unit responsible for tax-exempt organizations comments on the draft guidance for approving/disapproving Tea Party applications. So what did Wilkins discuss with the President two days earlier? We don’t really know, and Lew apparently doesn’t know, either.
Lew was directed by President Obama to follow up on the report of the Treasury’s Inspector General, J. Russell George, about the IRS targeting of Tea Party groups. Yet when Lew blithely asserted that there was “no suggestion” that Tea Party applications sent to the IRS general counsel’s office were reviewed by Wilkins, Chris Wallace of Fox News said, “Wait a minute—have you asked him?” Lew obviously had not, saying he was “leaving the investigation [to] the proper people who do investigations.” So Wallace followed up by asking if somebody in the Treasury Department had asked Wilkins what he knew about this. Lew avoided answering the question and merely repeated his statement that there was “no evidence that this went to any political official.” A good way to avoid getting such evidence is to avoid asking such questions.
The real point here is that this is not a phony scandal. Every story the Administration has told from the start of this investigation to explain what happened has fallen apart, beginning with the false claim that only some rogue agents in an IRS office in Ohio were responsible for this improper and potentially unlawful behavior. Despite the “phony” claims of President Obama, Jay Carney, and Jack Lew, Congress has an obligation to get to the bottom of this abuse of its authority by the IRS and make sure it does not happen again.