But the Caller is hardly the only news organization to reach for a White House connection in recent days. ABC, NBC, Fox, and The Washington Post have all tried to tie the scandal to Washington, too. Fox Anchor Jenna Lee kicked off a May 29 segment by claiming that recent revelations raised “troubling new questions about the IRS and whether the administration is using the powerful tax agency to intimidate political enemies.” The camera then cut to reporter Douglas McKelway, who argued that official claims that the targeting originated in Cincinnati were “completely bogus” and asserted that Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the conservative American Center for Law and Justice, had letters that pointed “to a much higher authority.” Sekulow later appeared in the segment, alongside a chyron that read, “LETTERS SHOW HIGHER-UPS AT IRS TARGETED CONSERVATIVE GROUPS.” “I don’t know what the Department of the Treasury, I don’t know what IRS, I don’t know what the White House is thinking,” he said. “We’ve got the documents because we’ve been in dialogue with the IRS for a year and a half.” The specific contents of the letters were never discussed, nor were they ever shown.
Similarly, The Washington Post reported in mid-May that IRS officials in Washington “were involved with investigating conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status, making clear that the effort reached well beyond the branch in Cincinnati that was initially blamed.” As I noted last week, that story was based solely on letters the IRS sent True the Vote and its parent group, The King Street Patriots, both of which are devoted to fighting voter fraud.
ABC’s Jonathan Karl, whose report ran around the same time, was opaque about his sourcing. (Perhaps this should come as no surprise. After all, Karl is the reporter who claimed to have “obtained” the White House’s Benghazi talking point emails when all he had were doctored summaries.) Standing in front of the White House, Karl held up two letters from groups that had found themselves under the IRS microscope and claimed that they showed “that at least some of the targeting was done right out of Washington, DC.” The only reference to the letters’ origin was on ABC’s blog, The Note, which said they came from the lawyer for True the Vote, Cleta Mitchell.
Like a number of reporters covering this story, Karl seems confused about the IRS’s proper role. The agency is supposed to scrutinize applicants for tax-exempt status. How else can it be sure that they meet the criteria? The activities of the Cincinnati branch were only scandalous because groups were singled out based on their Tea Party ties. Unless True the Vote was targeted for this reason, the IRS letters only show that the agency was doing its job.
In fact, the IRS is only known to have improperly targeted 501(c)4s, and True the Vote is a 501(c)3 non-profit—a very different category. Also, there are plenty of legitimate reasons that the IRS might have put True the Vote under a microscope, a fact that has been consistently overlooked in the reporting. Unlike 501(c)4s, 501(c)3s are barred from engaging in electoral politics, period. True the Vote regularly defies this ban. Among other things, the group’s poll watchers have been known to work exclusively with GOP candidates and target heavily black and Hispanic precincts, which tend to lean Democratic. Its in-your-face approach has drawn numerous complaints of voter intimidation. Based on the group’s partisan record, in 2010, the Texas Democratic Party filed a lawsuit charging that the King Street Patriots (which had yet to spin True the Vote off into a separate organization) was not a legitimate non-profit, but an unregistered political action committee that had illegally aided the Republican Party with its poll-watching activities. A district court later rule in the Texas Democratic Party’s favor.