On Saturday, we discovered that the IRS targeting of conservative groups didn’t start in 2012 and wasn’t limited to a few rogue low-level agents. Senior officials became aware of the practice at least as early as June 2011, including the top lawyer for the IRS. Today, the Wall Street Journal and Reuters report that an upcoming IG report will show that the practice first began in the 2010 midterm cycle (via TPM):
But questions continued to swirl about the failure of IRS officials to disclose the problems until the inspector general’s report was about to become public.
The timeline contained in the draft report indicates that IRS scrutiny of tea-party and other conservative groups began as early as 2010 and came to the attention of Ms. Lerner, the head of the tax-exempt-organizations division, at least by the following year.
The report’s timeline indicates that the criteria were changed to be more neutral in July 2011 after Ms. Lerner “raised concerns.” The criteria for heightened scrutiny continued to evolve over the next year or so, even as complaints from tea-party groups—and questions from GOP lawmakers—mounted over IRS inquiries to various groups about their activities.
Lerner seems to have deliberately misled Congress, which was demanding answers after receiving a raft of complaints about aggressive IRS agents:
Letters from Ms. Lerner in April and May 2012 responding to questions by Republican lawmakers made no mention of the problems that had surfaced in the IRS unit.
According to the draft report, on April 24 and 25 of last year, officials in Ms. Lerner’s office were reviewing “troubling questions” that had been asked of organizations, including “the names of donors.”
One way the IRS attempted to throw people off the trail was by subtly changing their search criteria. They started off by looking at Tea Party groups, but then expanded to any group unhappy with the administration’s performance:
When tax agents started singling out non-profit groups for extra scrutiny in 2010, they looked at first only for key words such as ‘Tea Party,’ but later they focused on criticisms by groups of “how the country is being run,” according to investigative findings reviewed by Reuters on Sunday.
Over two years, IRS field office agents repeatedly changed their criteria while sifting through thousands of applications from groups seeking tax-exempt status to select ones for possible closer examination, the findings showed.
At one point, the agents chose to screen applications from groups focused on making “America a better place to live.”
Who knew that motive was so sinister? Does the IRS want America to be a worse place to live? If so, they’re well on their way with this scandal.
Reuters mentions Friday’s announcement ahead of the report:
After brewing for months, the IRS effort exploded into wider view on Friday when Lois Lerner, director of exempt organizations for the IRS, apologized for what she called the “inappropriate” targeting of conservative groups for closer scrutiny, something the agency had long denied.
At a legal conference in Washington, while taking questions from the audience, Lerner said the agency was sorry.
She said the screening practice was confined to an IRS office in Cincinnati; that it was “absolutely not” influenced by the Obama administration; and that none of the targeted groups was denied tax-free status.
In retrospect, this looks like a strategy to spin the report ahead of its release. Rather than wait for the results to drop like a bombshell in the media, the IRS sent Lerner out for damage control, admitting to as little as possible while sounding as though the agency was taking responsibility for their errors. That way, when the report did come out, the media could proclaim it “old news,” taking a page from Jay Carney’s Benghazi scandal strategy, and castigate anyone demanding more answers and drawing the obvious conclusion that the Obama administration has politicized the IRS.
Unfortunately, that strategy didn’t work very well. Lerner turned out to be a very poor choice for that job, bungling the media handling badly enough that the media ended up more annoyed than mollified. Mostly, though, this is news that’s just not spinnable. The report now appears to implicate the highest levels of the IRS in either misleading or outright lying to Congress, and raises questions about how exactly this effort got put into place at all. They basically threw gasoline on a fire that would have exploded anyway, making the conflagration even more eye-catching as a result.
Update: The New York Times’ headline focuses on the real scandal — “I.R.S. Focus on Conservatives Gives G.O.P. an Issue to Seize On”. If you pay for the subscription, presumably you get the audio of the Gray Lady weeping over this blow.
Update: Jon Karl also reported this morning that it’s been going on for three years:
ABC News has obtained a draft of a soon-to-be-released investigative reporting showing that the Internal Revenue Service began targeting conservative groups as far back as 2010 and that senior IRS officials in Washington have known about it for almost two years. Last week, we learned that the IRS was targeting groups with “tea party” or “patriot” in their names, but it goes beyond that, ABC’s JONATHAN KARL reports. The draft report, conducted by the IRS’s internal watchdog, says the agency was tracking groups who’s goals included, quote “limiting government” and “educating on the Constitution and Bill of Rights” and that, “criticize how the country is being run.” Friday, the White House says it had it no idea the IRS was targeting Tea Party-allied groups.
That little game Lerner played isn’t fooling anyone. This is going to get very ugly very quickly. Here’s the question, though — can anyone put any reliance on this Department of Justice to investigate and prosecute this corruption? I think we’re heading into special prosecutor territory.