It depends.  Do the assurances of newly-arrived Barack Obama appointee and political ally Danny Werfel that all is now well at the IRS and that no malice was intended in its disparate treatment of conservatives groups fill you with a sense of well being?  It doesn’t with National Journal’s Ron Fournier, either, who argues today that nothing short of an independent investigation will clear the air. That means a special prosecutor, not an Inspector General audit, and especially not the two political parties spinning the situation to their advantage:

Obama backed his strong words with middling action, transferring political ally Danny Werfel from the Office of Management and Budget to the IRS, where as acting commissioner Werfel would investigate his own administration.

Werfel may be a stand-up guy with a solid reputation in Washington. But the public doesn’t know him. The public also doesn’t trust the federal government. And the public doesn’t like the IRS.

Why, after the agency’s massive breach of trust, would Obama think a Werfel-led investigation will restore the public’s faith?

Fournier isn’t buying the latest spin either, which is that the IRS supposedly went after progressive groups with their BOLOs:

Werfel announced Monday that instructions used by the IRS to look for applicants seeking tax-exempt status with “Tea Party” and “Patriots” in their title also included groups whose names included the word “Progressive” and “Occupy.” Jonathon Weisman of The New York Times reported, “The documents appeared to back up contentions by IRS officials and some Democrats that the agency did not intend to single out conservative groups for special scrutiny.”

The White House and its allies declared the scandal over. Said David Axelrod, one of Obama’s longest-serving advisers, said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” show: “I think the implication that this was some sort of scheme is falling apart.”

Don’t buy it. Like Issa and the GOP, Democrats are jumping to convenient conclusions based on incomplete evidence and no credible investigation.

National Review looked at the data and confirmed Fournier’s suspicions:

A November 2010 version of the list obtained by National Review Online, however, suggests that while the list did contain the word “progressive,” screeners were in fact instructed to treat “progressive” groups differently from “tea party” groups. Whereas screeners were merely alerted that a designation of 501(c)(3) status “may not be appropriate” for applications containing the word ”progressive” – 501(c)(3) groups are prohibited from conducting any political activities – they were told to send those of tea-party groups off ”to Group 7822″ for further scrutiny.

That means the applications of progressive groups could be approved on the spot by line agents, while those of tea-party groups could not. Furthermore, the November 2010 list noted that tea-party cases were “currently being coordinated with EOT,” which stands for Exempt Organizations Technical, a group of tax lawyers in Washington, D.C. Those of progressive groups were not.

The AP reported earlier on Monday that “Terms including ‘Israel,’ ’Progressive’ and ‘Occupy’ were used by agency workers to help pick groups for closer examination.” That appears to be misleading, as there is no indication from the list examined by NRO that progressive groups were singled out for heightened scrutiny in a manner similar to tea-party groups. Cases involving healthcare legislation, however, were. “New applications are subject to secondary screening in Group 7821,” the list notes.

Also sent along for more further examination were applications involving ”disputed territories in the Middle East,” in particular, those that advocated a “one sided point of view,” which perhaps explains the testimony of Cincinnati screener Gary Muthert, who told commitee investigators that the applications of pro-Israel groups went to an antiterrorism unit within the agency.

The only real solution to this is the appointment of an independent counsel answerable only to the courts.  Fournier, who did some early reporting on the land deal that would eventually spawn the Whitewater investigation and the Monica Lewinsky-affair impeachment, can hardly believe that he’s offering this advice:

If forced to guess, I would say that the IRS and its White House masters are guilty of gross incompetence, but not corruption. I based that only on my personal knowledge of – and respect for – Obama and his team. But I shouldn’t have to guess. More importantly, most Americans don’t have a professional relationship with Obama and his team. Many don’t respect or trust government. They deserve what Obama promised nearly six weeks ago – accountability. They need a thorough investigation conducted by somebody other than demagogic Republicans and White House allies.

Somebody like …. a special prosecutor. Those words are hard for me to type two decades after an innocent land deal I covered in Arkansas turned into the runaway Whitewater investigation.

Frankly, I share the same distaste for special prosecutors as a process. They tend to run amok, expanding their reach into unforeseen areas, and acting like a fourth branch of government.  They occupy space that Congress should occupy instead, with accountability directly to the voters.  And for the moment, Congress seems to be moving forward on their probe, although the recent stunt by Rep. Elijah Cummings may well derail that effort.  I’d prefer to see that process play out a little longer first before surrendering all accountability over a probe.

If that turns into a quagmire, then Congress will need to press for the special prosecutor — and we should be prepared for that eventuality sooner rather than later.