The IRS scandal demands an independent investigation
"It's inexcusable, and Americans are right to be angry about it, and I am angry about it. I will not tolerate this kind of behavior in any agency, but especially in the IRS, given the power that it has and the reach that it has into all of our lives. ... I'll do everything in my power to make sure nothing like this happens again by holding the responsible parties accountable ...."
— President Barack Obama condemning "misconduct" at the Internal Revenue Service, May 15, 2013
All of us understand that IRS misconduct, right? And we know which parties Obama needs to hold accountable. It's obvious, right? End of story:
We learned at the get-go of this scandal that, during a long run-up to the 2012 presidential election, IRS officials extensively hassled conservative groups that had applied for tax-exempt status. Congressional Republicans pounced on this as an attempt to hijack the election.
But wait. Early last week we read that the agency used keywords such as "progressive" to target left-leaning groups, too, for extra scrutiny. "New IRS chief: Lists targeted more than tea partyers," said the Chicago Tribune. "Documents Show Liberals in I.R.S. Dragnet," said The New York Times. Congressional Democrats pounced on the suggestion that the agency had treated conservatives and liberals with equal indignity.
But wait some more. On Wednesday a Treasury Department inspector general undercut the equal-abuse argument: From May 2010 to May 2012, the IRS had flagged for added scrutiny six of the 20 applicant groups with words such as "progressive" in their titles. "In comparison, our audit found that 100 percent of the (292) tax-exempt applications with Tea Party, Patriots or 9/12 in their names were processed as potential political cases" — that is, groups possibly too political to merit tax-exempt status. "While we have multiple sources of information corroborating the use of tea party and other related criteria," wrote Inspector General J. Russell George, "including employee interviews, emails and other documents, we found no indication in any of these other materials that 'progressives' was a term used to refer cases for scrutiny for political-campaign intervention."
Translation: The IRS was overwhelmingly one-sided in scrutinizing applications. And the agency evidently was completely one-sided in subjecting only conservative groups to long processing delays and lengthy, often peculiar requests. Example: The IRS asked an Iowa anti-abortion group "how all of your activities, including the prayer meetings held outside of Planned Parenthood, are considered educational as defined under 501(c)(3) ...."
So that's where things stand — until fresh reporting, a document leak or perhaps a confession sends the story in some new direction. But seven weeks into this scandal, the fact most Americans know best is that ... they still don't know much that's definitive. 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.
Why hasn't Attorney General Eric Holder appointed a special prosecutor? The White House, too, should be clamoring for one: The feds are only three months from enrolling Americans in Obamacare, a program that relies on citizens' willingness to have the IRS even more involved in the financial details of their lives.
We applauded when Obama said he would make sure there will be no such future scandal. But lofty pledges aren't enough. The president and his underlings ought to be instructing a special prosecutor to unravel the still mysterious scandal that confronts them today.