Lynne Patton may have opened up more than one can of worms for Donald Trump and new interim IRS commissioner David Kautter. In messages to actress and activist Leah Remini, whose A&E series Scientology and the Aftermath has the organization on the defensive, the HUD official and Trump family friend assured her that Trump wants to end Scientology’s controversial tax exemption as a church. There’s only one small problem with that, as HuffPost’s Yashar Ali points out:
President Donald Trump believes the Church of Scientology should have its tax exemption revoked, a longtime family aide and current top official at the Department of Housing and Urban Development told an actress and producer in May.
In an unsolicited Twitter message, Lynne Patton, who has worked for the Trump family since 2009, told actress Leah Remini of Trump’s position and said she would interface with the IRS directly to seek more information in an effort to initiate revocation. Remini sent HuffPost copies of Patton’s messages and has declined to comment further.
It’s not clear if Patton ever communicated with the IRS. But if Trump did express an opinion on the church and Patton did contact the IRS about it, as her message suggests, that would be a highly inappropriate level of interference with the IRS by the administration, one expert said.
“For the White House or any administration official to try and influence who the IRS targets, for whatever reason, is wrong and could result in a violation of the law,” said Larry Noble, the former general counsel of the Federal Election Commission who is now a senior director of ethics and general counsel at the Campaign Legal Center. “The IRS must make these decisions independently without any influence by the White House or administration officials.”
Literally, Trump can’t direct the IRS to do this, and Patton’s promise to insert herself in the process could have already doomed any such organic effort at the IRS.
I’ve been watching Remini’s show for both seasons and find it a fascinating look into the highly controversial organization. I have no personal experience with Scientology but did have friends decades ago who joined and seemed happy about it. They wanted me to read through one of the books, but I found it utterly incredible and quickly gave it back, which they accepted with grace and humor. Other than the horror stories and the organization’s claims, that’s pretty much all I knew about it until recently, and none of my knowledge has been from personal experience of the kind Remini includes on her show. Aftermath does make a compelling argument against Scientology, but the organization also vehemently denies all of the allegations made on the show.
The question of Scientology’s IRS tax exemption was bound to come up again after Remini’s series and the documentary Going Clear aired. Scientology fought for 26 years to get the exemption back after it was revoked in 1967, finally succeeding in 1993. It remains controversial because of the enormous fees charged by the “church” for its services (which the decision transformed into tax-exempt donations), and its expansive fortune in real estate and other assets, and its practices, some of which have gotten greater exposure from Remini. (Remini’s program mainly focuses on Scientology’ “disconnect” policy and its impact on families.)
If the Trump administration hoped to reverse the 1993 IRS finding, Patton may have crippled that plan. The IRS has strict provisions governing the audit of churches for purposes of reviewing their legitimacy, imposed by Congress to prevent the politicization of the process. It has to be initiated by a “high-level Treasury official,” and only when there is a “reasonable” belief that the organization does not qualify as a tax-exempt church, or “may be carrying on an unrelated trade or business (within the meaning of section 513) or otherwise engaged in activities subject to taxation under this title.” While some of the commercial aspects of Scientology might indeed cause a reasonable belief that the exemption should be at risk, having the case raised and politicized by a HUD official — and someone so closely connected to the Trumps on a personal level — might negate any near-term effort to raise those concerns.
This is no mere red tape, either. Republicans rightly demanded accountability (and got little of it) when the IRS corruptly began targeting conservative organizations applying for tax-exempt status with delays, endless demands for paperwork, and hostility based on their ideological stance. This isn’t the exact same situation, but it’s close enough. IRS tax exemptions should not rest on the whim of the White House, where they can be used as political footballs against one’s opponents or to reward allies, even if that does mean it might right a previous wrong, assuming that’s the case here.
If you haven’t watched Aftermath or the documentary Going Clear, I’d recommend both. Keep an open mind, but they are both well done and worth watching.