So the first head has rolled in the scandal that has engulfed the Internal Revenue Service. On Wednesday, President Barack Obama ordered Acting IRS Commissioner Steven Miller to get the ax.
And you can bet that if the powers that be in Washington could turn back the clock, Douglas Shulman’s head would also be on the chopping block. After all, he was the IRS commissioner last year who flatly denied that his agency had ever targeted Tea Party groups and other conservative organizations.
“There’s absolutely no targeting,” Shulman testified before a congressional committee last March. But of course there was. Last Friday, the IRS admitted as much — although it tried to put all the blame on a bunch of low-level employees at its office in Cincinnati.
After intimidating honest taxpayers for decades, the IRS is finally on the receiving end of some nasty publicity. The President has called its behavior “outrageous.” The FBI is launching an investigation of possible criminal violations. Isn’t it delightful?
The scandal erupted last week when an IRS official admitted for the first time — after high-level officials had denied it for years — that the agency singled out groups that had the words “Tea Party” or “Patriots” in their name for extra scrutiny when they applied for tax-exempt status.
And it wasn’t just such obvious right-wing organizations. If your group focused on government spending, debt or taxes, or if it criticized how the country was being run, chances are it would make the list. Heck, even such an innocuous objective as “trying to make America a better place to live” could be enough to get your application flagged.
This isn’t the first time that such allegations have been made. In fact, Senator Orin Hatch (R-Utah) said it was precisely because he had heard such complaints that he specifically asked the IRS commissioner about them last year. On three separate occasions, Miller assured the Senator that there was no truth to the accusations.
Miller “basically misled me and purposefully did so,” Hatch said earlier this week. “He purposely misled me because he knew better.” And in a classic bit of understatement, the Utah Republican concluded, “That bothers me quite a bit.”
It’s probably no coincidence that the scandal first erupted last Friday afternoon. That is the traditional time for Washington spinmeisters to release bad news, since most folks are thinking more about their plans for the weekend than what the folks in Washington are up to. The worried parties no doubt hope that by the time Monday morning rolls around, any embarrassing disclosures from last Friday will be long forgotten.
That certainly didn’t happen this time. In fact, every passing day brought forth new and even more damaging revelations. By Tuesday, the Boston Herald actually ran the word “Obamagate” in bold, black type on its front page. Another headline read, “Scandals Invoke Comparison To Nixon.”
I’ll bet that last one made some White House staffers cringe. They remember (or surely have been told about) the scandal that erupted four decades earlier, when White House counsel John Dean told a congressional committee that Richard Nixon’s “enemies list” was turned over to the IRS, with instructions to “use the available federal machinery to screw our political enemies.”
As a result, when the House of Representatives drew up articles of impeachment against Nixon in 1974, the second article accused the president of using “income tax audits or other income tax investigations” to intimidate his political opponents.
Could something similar happen again? Veteran political analyst and best-selling author Dick Morris says absolutely:
What’s going to happen is you’re going to get a congressional hearing. They’re going to call some of these people under oath. They’ll call Miller for example, the head of the IRS, they’ll call [Douglas] Shulman, the former head of the IRS, and they’ll ask, did you know about this?
Then the obvious question is who else knew? Who did you tell? I doubt that there’s a lot of people who are willing to commit perjury to save the president, and undoubtedly what they’ll say is, well, I told such and such in the White House. Then they’ll get this person under oath and you just go step by step up the food chain.
At the end of it, it’s an impeachable offense, which is the key thing.
Caught In Two Lies
So far, IRS officials have been caught telling at least two lies in an effort to contain the growing controversy. The first is that it was all done by a small group of low-level employees in the IRS office in Cincinnati who just weren’t supervised closely enough.
Nice try, but no cigar. We now know that some of the inquiries came from IRS headquarters in Washington, D.C. Oh, and at least some of the requests included demands for the names of donors, contributors and grantors — even though the laws governing such organizations specifically protect the privacy of the people who support them.
Hatch confirmed that the IRS was playing fast and loose with the truth here. “It wasn’t just some lowly staffer in Cincinnati who made a mistake,” he said. “Very senior management at the IRS here in Washington knew what was going on for over a year and didn’t say a word.”
Actually, it isn’t true that the IRS “didn’t say a word.” In fact, the agency issued many words — all of them designed to hide the truth.
The second whopper from the cover-up cohorts is that all of this took place over a few weeks in 2011 and it was promptly stopped when higher-ups learned about it. Wrong again! We now know that the troubling investigations began back in 2010 and continued for more than a year and a half.
At the same time conservative groups were subject to all sorts of scrutiny and delay, many liberal and progressive groups were put on the fast track for approval. If your organization was run by an Obama relative, let’s say, or former White House staffers or operatives from Obama’s 2012 Presidential campaign, the normal approval process could be cut from more than a year to as little as one month.
Yes, indeed, in this bright new era of fairness and transparency, some pigs are sure more equal than others.
And conspiracy buffs have got to love this one: One of the rumors making the rounds in Washington is that some top Administration honchos decided to release the story about the political-audit scandal in an effort to distract public attention from the furor over what happened (and most pointedly, what didn’t happen) in the terrorist assault on our consulate in Benghazi, Libya, last September.
If that was the goal, the media manipulators sure made a major miscalculation. Most of us may not be terribly concerned about the activities of an obscure jihadist group in a remote country like Libya — even when it causes the death of four Americans, including our ambassador.
But every taxpayer in this country has a visceral fear of getting on the wrong side of the IRS. We’re aware of past efforts to use the IRS as a political enforcement branch of the White House. And we don’t like it a bit.
You can bet that more heads will roll before all the investigations are over. House Speaker John Boehner says that firings won’t be enough: “My question isn’t about who is going to resign. My question is who’s going to jail over this scandal?”
I’m more eager to see how far the fallout spreads. Remember, no amount of sacrificial lambs was enough to keep Nixon safe in the White House.
“Could the IRS scandal bring down Obama? Let’s hope so.
Until next time, keep some powder dry.