Saturday, May 21, 2016

The IRS's Ugly Business as Usual

The Wall Street Journal 

‘How much has really changed?’ a judge asks. Answer: not much. The scandal goes on. 

By Kimberley A. Strassel
Amid the drama that is today’s presidential race, serious subjects are getting short shrift. No one is happier about this than Barack Obama. And no agency within that president’s administration is more ecstatic than the Internal Revenue Service.

That tax authority’s targeting of conservative nonprofits ranks as one of the worst federal scandals in modern history. It is topped only by the outrage that no one has been held to account. Or perhaps by the news that the targeting continues to this day.

That detail became clear in an extraordinary recent court hearing, in front of a panel of judges for the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. The paired cases in the hearing were Linchpins of Liberty, et al. v. United States of America, et al. and True the Vote Inc. v. Internal Revenue Service, et al. They involve several conservative nonprofits—there are 41 in Linchpin—that were, as they said, rounded up and “branded” by the IRS. The groups are still suffering harm, and they want justice.

A lower-court judge had blithely accepted the IRS’s claim that the targeting had stopped, that applications for nonprofit status had been approved, and that the matter was therefore moot.

The federal judges hearing the appeal, among them David B. Sentelle and Douglas H. Ginsburg, weren’t so easily rolled. In a series of probing questions the judges ascertained that at least two of the groups that are party to the lawsuit have still not received their nonprofit approvals. The judges determined that those two groups are 501(c)(4) social-welfare groups, which are subject to far less scrutiny than 501(c)(3) charities, yet are still being harassed by the IRS five years later. The judges were told that not only are the groups still on ice, but that their actions are still being “monitored” by the federal government.

As one lawyer for the plaintiffs noted, despite the IRS’s claim that it got rid of its infamous targeting lists, there is “absolutely no showing” that the agency has in fact stopped using the underlying “criteria” that originally “identified and targeted for mistreatment based on political views.”

The hearing also showed the degree to which the IRS has doubled down on its outrageous revisionist history, and its excuses. IRS lawyers again claimed that the whole targeting affair came down to bad “training” and bad “guidance.” They blew off a Government Accountability Office report that last year found the IRS still had procedures that would allow it to unfairly select organizations for examinations based on religious or political viewpoint. The lawyers’ argument: We wouldn’t do such a thing. Again. Trust us.

More incredibly, the IRS team claimed that the fault for some of the scandal rests with the conservative groups, for not pushing back hard enough during the targeting. In response to complaints that the groups had been forced to hand over confidential information (information the IRS now refuses to destroy), one agency lawyer retorted: “They didn’t have to give the information to the IRS if they thought it was inappropriate, they could have said so.” Really.

The government lawyers also smugly noted that some of the targeted conservative groups had blown their chance for nonprofit approval when they turned down the IRS’s “fast track” procedure (an Obama Treasury creation that bestows nonprofit status on groups that agree to give up their political speech rights). The IRS team even excused its continuing harassment of these groups by blaming Congress: The Obama IRS came up with a new rule in 2013 to help “clarify” nonprofit regulations—by essentially outlawing nonprofit speech—but congressional Republicans keep blocking it.

At one point, an incredulous Judge Sentelle noted that the IRS might be more believable if it had ever shown “a bit more contrition.” He said: “The Court would have to be awfully ignorant not to recognize that there has likely been an egregious violation of the First Amendment rights of American citizens by the IRS, and the IRS to this day seems very resistant to acknowledgment of that.”

An IRS lawyer rolled out the defense used by former agency official Lois Lerner that the targeting was just the unfortunate use of “inappropriate” criteria, but Judge Sentelle reminded the lawyer of the IRS’s vindictiveness. He noted that on one occasion the IRS simply shelved the application of an organization that had sued it. The agency “came to Court not having done anything to eliminate” the problem, he said, so “It’s just hard to find the IRS to be an agency we can trust, isn’t it?”

Judge Sentelle said there is a “pretty good case” that “egregious violations of the Constitution” had been committed, and he dared an IRS lawyer to “stand there with a straight face” and say otherwise. Judge Ginsburg, who spent the hearing catching out the IRS’s conflicting statements, at one point simply asked: “How much has really changed?”

Answer: not much. It was good news, then, that the House Judiciary Committee recently announced it will hold two hearings to examine the conduct of IRS Commissioner John Koskinen in this matter. Donald Trump, as the presumptive GOP nominee, could do worse than to use his megaphone to draw attention to the hearings. The IRS scandal needs to remain a story.

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