Remember the Lois Lerner emails the Internal Revenue Service said were lost? Thousands of them were just uncovered, and according to one investigator, they were “right where you would expect them to be.” It was just the latest iteration of a recurring trend in the IRS targeting scandal: investigators debunking attempts by the agency and its apologists to excuse, downplay, or cover up IRS’s abuse of conservative and tea-party groups.
Two years after it was first publicly exposed, here are the five biggest lies, myths, and debunked claims about the IRS scandal.
1. There Is ‘Absolutely No Targeting’ Program
Amid media reports in 2012 that the IRS was investigating dozens of tea-party organizations and demanding to know their political beliefs, twelve Republican senators sent a letter to IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman expressing concern with “excessive” IRS inquiries and seeking assurance that groups of all leanings received fair treatment. One week later, Shulman promised Congress, “There’s absolutely no targeting.”
The Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration exploded this claim in May of 2013 with a report titled, “Inappropriate Criteria Were Used to Identify Tax-Exempt Applications for Review.” The report concluded that the IRS chose groups for review “based upon their names or policy positions instead of indications of potential political campaign intervention.” It also determined that targeting began as early as March 2010, more than two years before Shulman insisted to Congress that no such program existed.
2. Agents in Cincinnati Were to Blame
When Lerner revealed that her agency had taken “absolutely inappropriate actions” against conservative groups, she blamed the abusive treatment on “lower-level workers” in Cincinnati. Bizarre as it might sound that a regional office would undertake a political project on its own, much of the media bought the claim. Shortly thereafter, The New York Times characterized the scandal as the unfortunate error of “an understaffed Cincinnati outpost that was alienated from the broader I.R.S. culture and given little direction.”
Congressional investigators later discovered emails from 2011 in which Lerner specifically instructed senior members of her staff to have applications by tea-party groups sent to DC for review. “Cincy should probably NOT have these cases,” Lerner wrote in the emails.
A Freedom of Information Act request by the nonprofit group Judicial Watch later revealed further e-mails “document[ing] active direction by the federal tax agency’s headquarters in targeting Tea Party and conservative nonprofit applicants during the 2010 and 2012 campaigns.”
3. The IRS’s Actions Were Politically Neutral
When investigators uncovered evidence that the IRS also flagged applications that used words such as “progressive,” some commentators (and Democratic congressmen) rushed to conclude that the scandal was not politically motivated. But a closer look quickly revealed that liberal-leaning groups did not experience the same targeted treatment, the same level of questioning, or the same delays as their conservative-leaning counterparts.
A House Ways and Means Committee staff analysis found that while more than 100 conservative groups were targeted, only seven groups with “progressive” in their names were. The conservative groups were asked, on average, three times as many questions as the Progressive groups, and while many conservative groups endured years-long delays, all the Progressive groups were approved. Investigators also discovered that the applications of liberal-leaning groups were never sent to the DC office that handled the tea party and conservative applications.
4. The IRS Proposed New Rules to Solve the Problem
Six months after the targeting revelation, the IRS proposed new rules for social welfare organizations it claimed would “ensure that the standards for tax-exemption are clear and can be applied consistently.” In reality, the details of the plan did little to reform the IRS’s subjective test for tax-exempt status, and instead would make things worse by putting the IRS deeper into the speech-police business. Common nonprofit activities, such as publishing nonpartisan voter guides or organizing voter registration drives, were re-categorized as “candidate-related political activity” subject to IRS limits.
Later, congressional investigators confirmed what critics of the proposal had long suspected: the new rules were not a genuine response to the targeting scandal. They had been worked on unofficially as early as 2011in yet another attempt to restrict speech by nonprofits. Fortunately, the IRS backed off the proposal in the face of overwhelmingly negative bipartisan opposition, but it’s not at all clear they will come up with something better.
5. The E-mails Were Lost
Over a year after investigations into the scandal began, the IRS claimed to have lost more than two years’ worth of e-mails from Lerner to outside agencies due to a computer crash in 2011. The IRS later claimed to be unable to produce e-mails from at least 20 other agency employees. David Ferriero, archivist of the United States, testified to Congress that the IRS had broken federal law by failing to report the lost e-mails.
However, since that time, the Inspector General has found tens of thousands of unique e-mails from Lerner and others that were supposedly “lost.” In fact, the emails were, according to one investigator, “right where you would expect them to be,” in the IRS data back-up facility.
Either through ignorance or dishonesty, the IRS and its defenders have consistently misrepresented the facts of the scandal. Two years after the public was first outraged, it’s clearer than ever that the IRS cannot be trusted to play the role of speech cop.