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Tuesday, Sep 30, 2014
Editorials

Editorial: Dig through the IRS muck

Published:

Washington Democrats insist accusations that the IRS targeted conservative nonprofits are more about political theater than government abuse.

But those claims look ever more hollow as evidence continues to mount that IRS officials not only sought to punish groups opposing President Obama but are engaged in a flagrant cover-up.

Americans deserve the truth. The Obama administration could provide it by appointing a special prosecutor to investigate the sleazy affair. But Eric Holder’s Justice Department, you can be sure, won’t initiate such action.

So citizens will continue to have to rely on Congressional Republicans to ferret out the facts.

What already has been discovered is appalling.

Lois Lerner, who headed the IRS division that oversaw tax-exempt status for political groups, took the Fifth Amendment when being questioned by Congress last year on whether the IRS gave tea party and other conservative groups with tax exemptions special scrutiny. Last month Congress voted to hold her in contempt.

The IRS informed Congress last week that it could not find two years of Lerner’s emails. Nor could it produce emails for six other employees involved in the case. Their hard drives, the IRS officials explained, had conveniently crashed. The lost missives occurred during the 2010-2011 time frame, when the conservative groups were being targeted.

As The Wall Street Journal points out, the IRS also failed to comply with a congressional demand last year for “all documents and communication between Lerner and the president.”

Yet its letter to Congress last week made clear that the IRS has been selecting which Lerner emails it made available. The agency ignored Congress’ directive that “all” messages be handed over.

Congress also learned that Lerner had corresponded with the Justice Department about the possibility of prosecuting right-wing groups.

House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, who is heading the investigation, found Lerner had a database of tax-exempt organizations sent to the FBI just before the 2010 midterm elections, virtually inviting investigations.

The database included some legally protected taxpayer information. The IRS maintains, according to the news website Politico, that only a tiny fraction of the material was “inadvertently” shared. That’s hardly reassuring, given the agency’s misrepresentations throughout this case.

Lerner professes her innocence and blames any inappropriate tax-status reviews on low-level functionaries.

But the IRS’ letter to the Justice Department, its contact with the FBI and the preponderance of the evidence that Congress has managed to pry out of the uncooperative agency suggests this effort was initiated and executed from the top.

With tales of missing emails, mysteriously crashed hard drives and a paranoid government seeking to intimidate opponents, the IRS affair understandably is being compared to President Nixon’s Watergate scandal.

While Nixon declared, “I am not a crook,” President Obama insists “there is not even a smidgen of corruption” about the IRS case.

But as Nixon discovered, denials can’t erase facts.

Congress, scheduled to hear IRS chief John Koskinen today, should keep vigorously pursuing the truth. Whatever political posturing occurs does not diminish the importance of the investigation and the need to hold government accountable when it abuses its authority and attacks free expression.

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