We have witnessed remarkable performances this past week in the unfolding drama involving the Internal Revenue Service.
First, Lois Lerner, director of the agency’s Exempt Organizations Unit, apologized for the agency’s targeting of conservative groups based solely on their political views, saying (falsely, it turns out) that the unlawful actions were confined to rogue workers in Cincinnati and that it had happened only briefly in 2012.
Then the timeline of the Treasury Inspector General for Treasury Administration (TIGTA) became public, showing that the targeting began in 2010. Steven Miller, the acting commissioner of the IRS, wrote an op-ed in USA Today on Tuesday essentially denying that conservatives were targeted (following in the footsteps of his predecessor, who denied the assertions before Congress last year). Later on Tuesday, the full TIGTA report was released, confirming the unlawful activities and reflecting an IRS still doggedly insisting that it was just a big “management” issue related to “streamlining” a heavy workload. Then President Barack Obama did a “boy, I’m mad too!” news conference Wednesday and announced Miller’s firing. The House Ways and Means Committee’s subpanel on IRS oversight will open hearings Friday today.
One hopes that these events will ultimately make a huge difference in how the IRS operates. But much remains to remedy the wrongs perpetrated by the agency the past three years.
Officials in Washington must do more than talk. Some actions must be taken immediately if our leaders are serious about addressing this frightening abuse of federal power:
* Issue letters of determination of exempt status to all of the groups targeted by the IRS. The agency created a list; dozens of applications have been in limbo, some since 2009. These citizens’ groups have suffered enough. Before its Memorial Day recess, Congress should pass a bill granting the tax-exempt status sought by every group on the IRS target list. Those applications have been thoroughly vetted; they have been pending more than long enough for the IRS to have rejected the application if the group’s mission and purpose don’t qualify for exempt status. These groups have been through multiple rounds of questions and produced voluminous materials regarding their activities and purposes; no basis for rejection must exist. The IRS apologized. That’s not good enough. Instead, grant the exempt status.
* Expand the investigation. Reports have emerged this week that conservative leaders, activists and Obama opponents nationwide have been subjected to audits of their personal income tax returns, coinciding with the time the IRS’s Exempt Organizations Unit began targeting tea party groups. These include a doctor in Atlanta who led the fight among physicians nationwide against Obamacare, an Idaho businessman who supported Mitt Romney and the leader of a Texas tea party organization. The pattern and timing suggest a correlation between political views and IRS audits. Congress should immediately open separate investigations of the auditing division and review all documents and internal communications regarding the criteria used for the audits to ascertain whether the IRS’s political targeting included other units of the agency.
* Tap an independent counsel. Congress must not allow Attorney General Eric Holder’s Justice Department to handle anything related to the IRS investigation. In March, Justice’s inspector general released a scathing report documenting the politicization of the department under Holder. In this administration, politicizing the levers of government is not only tolerated but rewarded. No American can have confidence in an investigation of this nature conducted by the country’s foremost experts in unlawfully politicizing a federal agency or department.
* The Senate should not confirm Tom Perez as labor secretary. Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz wrote in his March report: “Steps must be taken to address the professional culture of the Voting Section and the perception that political or ideological considerations have affected important administrative and enforcement decisions there.” The worst examples of the “political and ideological considerations” were found in the DOJ’s civil rights division, which Perez heads. If Obama is serious about changing this sort of behavior in Washington, he should withdraw Perez’s nomination as an important step in changing the culture of Washington. This would make it clear that people are not rewarded for engaging in inappropriate “political or ideological considerations” in the discharge of their government duties. If the president does not withdraw the nomination, the Senate should not confirm Perez, in a demonstration of its commitment to removing ideology from the operations of federal agencies.
* Ensure that there are ample civil remedies for federal officials who use the apparatus of government to punish an administration’s political opponents. The law should never protect those who misuse government for political purposes. No civil servant should be able to hide behind government immunity when that federal employee misuses his or her power to further a political ideology.
No more talk. Take action and show the American people that this situation will no longer be tolerated. Not now. Not ever.
Cleta Mitchell is a partner in the Washington office of Foley & Lardner LLP and represents several conservative and tea-party groups seeking recognition of exempt status from the IRS.