IRS letter to Shaheen confirms intent to pursue 501(c)(4) questions

A smoking gun, or just smoke and mirrors? The Daily Caller reported last night that it has exclusive correspondence between the IRS and Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) that demonstrates that Shaheen “conspired with [a] White House insider” on the targeting scandal that broke open last year. Patrick Howley didn’t publish the memos, however, and the explanation provided after a sensational lead doesn’t quite deliver on the main charge that Shaheen was “principally involved in a plot”:

“The IRS is aware of the current public interest in this issue,” IRS chief counsel William J. Wilkins, a White House visitor described by insiders as “The President’s Man at the IRS,” personally wrote in a hand-stamped memo to “Senator Shaheen” on official Department of the Treasury letterhead on April 25, 2012. …

Shaheen got the inside info from the IRS, making it clear she was the point person in a group composed of six close Democratic colleagues including Chuck Schumer and Al Franken, who joined with Shaheen in quietly writing a letter to then-IRS commissioner Doug Shulman expressing their concern about new nonprofit groups engaging in political activity in 2012.

The Democratic senators’ publicly available March 9, 2012 letter asked the IRS to “immediately change the administrative framework for enforcement of the tax code as it applies to groups designated as ‘social welfare’ organizations” by introducing a new “bright line test” for how much a tax-exempt group can invest in political activity and by setting a new rule that at least 51 percent of a group’s activity must non-political. The senators called for more elaborate disclosures about finances and “undertakings” in groups’ form 990 submissions and sought new rules about how much donors could write off as business expenses.

It has been known for more than a year that several Democratic Senators pressed the IRS to get aggressive with what they saw as a loophole in campaign-finance laws. That effort was led by Dick Durbin starting in 2010, not Jeanne Shaheen, and the letter in 2012 has been noted in the past. The first 2012 letter asking for a “bright line” standard was written in February 2012, and was quarterbacked by Schumer and Franken, although Shaheen was a signatory.

The response from Wilkins, who indeed is a murky figure in the IRS targeting scandal, were responses to letters from Congress. That’s not unusual, nor is it unusual that each Senator would get a somewhat-personal reply. The IRS is part of Treasury, so it would have been on Treasury letterhead. There’s nothing unusual about this, at least not in Howley’s report on the contents of the memos. The initial letters were addressed to then-Commissioner Douglas Shulman, but since the issue was one of legal interpretation, it would not seem unusual to have the IRS chief counsel send the reply.

Let’s not forget what the targeting scandal was, either. It wasn’t an attempt to impose a 51% “bright line” standard surreptitiously while investigating already-exempt groups. It was an attempt to prevent conservative groups from ever getting exempt status at all by bogging them down in nonsense documentary demands and red tape, while giving similarly-situated progressive groups a pass.

One can argue that these letters from Congress put political pressure on the IRS to target conservative groups, but that’s an argument better suited for Durbin’s high-handed intervention, not the Schumer-Franken et al missive. And it ignores the evidence that the personnel at the IRS were already politicized enough on their own to do this, including Lerner. None of this amounts to a smoking gun linking Shaheen to Lerner or Wilkins. There are plenty of reasons to demand more answers on the IRS scandal and to vote Shaheen out of office, but absent more information from TDC’s document trove, this isn’t one of them.