The big IRS stretch

Some reporters are straining to connect the scandal to the White House, without benefit of credible evidence. But others are skeptical

For the last month, Republicans have been trying mightily to paint the IRS’s Tea Party targeting scheme as proof that the Obama administration is wielding its federal powers as a weapon against opponents. And, despite the lack of evidence, many reporters have readily embraced this storyline.

In recent days, though, several journalists have begun pushing back.The most remarked-upon example is Candy Crowley. On Sunday, Darrell Issa, chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, appeared on her CNN show, State of the Union. He claimed that the committee’s interviews with IRS employees in the Cincinnati branch office, which improperly singled out Tea Party groups for scrutiny, suggested that the effort “was coordinated right out of Washington headquarters” and provided excerpts of interviews that ostensibly support these allegations. But Crowley was wary. “I want to talk about how problematic it is to get excerpts, because we know that you interviewed these people probably for hours,” she said. “It’s hard for us to judge what’s going on.” She then highlighted a passage from one excerpted interview:

Congressional investigator: So is it your perspective that ultimately the responsible parties for the decisions that were reported by the IG are not in the Cincinnati office?

IRS employee #1: I don’t know how to answer that question. I mean, from an agent standpoint, we didn’t do anything wrong. We followed directions based on other people telling us what to do.

Congressional investigator: And you ultimately followed directions from Washington; is that correct?

IRS employee #1: If direction had come down from Washington, yes.

Congressional investigator: But with respect to the particular scrutiny that was given to Tea Party applications, those directions emanated from Washington; is that right?

IRS employee #1: I believe so.

“It’s totally not definitive,” Crowley continued. “You know that your critics say Republicans—and you in particular—cherry-pick information that go to your foregone conclusion. So it worries us to put this kind of stuff out. Can you not put the whole transcript out?” Issa replied that he planned to make the entire transcript public and predicted that congressional investigators would prove the targeting was “coordinated in all likelihood right out of Washington headquarters.” To which Crowley responded, “But as yet you don’t have that direct link.”

The Atlantic’s Garance Franke-Ruta also deserves props for cutting through the breathless rhetoric. Last week, The Daily Caller reported that former IRS commissioner Doug Shulman had visited the Obama White House at least 157 times, a finding the Caller claimed “strongly suggests coordination by White House officials in the campaign against the president’s political opponents.” After taking a hard look at the Caller’s source documents, Franke-Ruta discovered that the conservative news site had skipped over important context. While Shulman had been cleared to attend 157 meetings, the vast majority of those clearances were for meetings with officials involved in implementing Obama’s healthcare law—an effort in which the IRS plays a major role. Moreover, Shulman apparently only attended a fraction of them. As Franke-Ruta wrote:

Indeed, of the 157 events Shulman was cleared to attend, White House records only provide time of arrival information—confirming that he actually went to them—for 11 events over the 2009-2012 period.

Poof. There goes the Caller’s theory.

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.

Other journalists have made similar leaps of logic. Last week,’s Open Channel ran yet another story tying the targeting scandal to IRS headquarters. It quoted several sources, including Sekulow, Mitchell of True the Vote, and an anonymous employee in the IRS’s Cincinnati office. But the only real evidence it presented was an inquiry the IRS’s Washington, DC office sent to a group known as the Ohio Liberty Coalition (previously the Ohio Liberty Council). The cover letter was stamped with the signature of Louis Lerner, the head of the IRS’s tax-exempt division, who was recently suspended after pleading the Fifth before Congress. NBC argued that this and other correspondence showed that the targeting scheme did “not solely originate in the agency’s Cincinnati office.”

This presumes the Ohio Liberty Coalition was singled out for its Tea Party ties when there are plenty of other reasons the IRS might have given it a hard look. So-called “social welfare” groups, or 501(c)4s, are allowed to engage in political activity—but only to advance their social missions. Last week, The New York Times reported that many of the 501(c)4s that were scrutinized by the IRS engaged in political activities that may have crossed this line, and thus merited “closer review.” The Ohio Liberty Coalition was offered as a prime example:

Tom Zawistowski, president of the Ohio Liberty Coalition, another Tea Party group that has complained about the scrutiny it received from the I.R.S., sent out regular e-mails to members about Romney campaign events and organized protests around the state to “demand the truth about Benghazi” when Mr. Obama visited before the 2012 election. The coalition also canvassed neighborhoods, handing out Romney campaign “door hangers,” Mr. Zawistowski said.

That’s exactly the kind of activity that the IRS should be scrutinizing. To suggest otherwise only encourages conspiracy mongering.

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Mariah Blake writes for the United States Project, CJR's politics and policy desk. She is based in Washington, DC, and her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New Republic, Foreign Policy, Salon, The Washington Monthly, and CJR, among other publications. Tags: , , , , ,