Chicago Tribune: Time for a special prosecutor on IRS scandal

“Why hasn’t Attorney General Eric Holder appointed a special prosecutor?” the editorial board of Barack Obama’s hometown newspaper wonders in its essay, scheduled for tomorrow’s print edition.  The Chicago Tribune has seen enough spin and delay in the investigation of the IRS scandals, and wants answers.  The only way to get those, the board writes, is a special prosecutor who can conduct an independent investigation:

The murky intrigue over who provoked what at this agency has become a playpen for politicians. Three among many crucial questions still scream for answers:

•Did someone nudge IRS employees to hassle certain groups or did agency officials spontaneously decide to do that?

•Inspector General George has testified that in June 2012, five months before the election, he told top Treasury Department officials of his probe into IRS targeting. Did his news, with its potential to rock the presidential campaign, stop atop Treasury — or did it make its way even higher in the administration?

•At multiple points in 2012, why did top IRS officials repeatedly mislead Congress by not disclosing — in response to highly specific questions — that the agency was targeting conservative groups?

We can only speculate on which tools will unlock the grimy secrets of this egregious misuse of government authority. An ongoing self-examination by the IRS is laughably untrustworthy. The U.S. Department of Justice also is on the case.

But as we wrote May 23, many Americans won’t be much interested in what one arm of the Obama administration concludes about the conduct of other arms — the IRS, the Treasury and possibly the White House. There are times when only a special prosecutor has the independence and credibility to resolve such a politically fraught matter.

I’ve been reluctant to come to that conclusion, because as I’ve reminded readers a few times, that cure can be worse than the disease.  Special prosecutors (or whatever they are called) tend to drag investigations on for years, go far afield of their original mandate, and usually end up punting on the central allegation of the investigation anyway.  Other than Watergate, the track record of special prosecutors mainly consists of low-level prosecutions and frustrated attempts to impose penalties for illegal behavior.

Still, that track record also mainly consists — at least after Watergate — of esoteric allegations of wrongdoing that seem more like insider trading in politics than understandably outrageous conduct.  Most of those investigations didn’t involve alleged wrongdoing that impacted more than a small circle of political insiders.  That’s not the case with the IRS scandals.  The IRS impacts every American — and with ObamaCare coming, that personal involvement will only get more intense.

If the agency has become a political tool of entrenched power elites in the executive branch, that’s a danger to which almost every American can relate.  And that’s what makes the political overtones of these brief “nothing to see here” arguments from White House apologists so laughable, and the accusations of Barack Obama’s opponents so difficult to trust. No outcome presented by Eric Holder’s Department of Justice or Darrell Issa’s Oversight Committee will find a consensus of credibility.  In this case, the only way forward is the messiest path.