News & Politics

The Real Scandal: Official Washington Goes Nuts Over IRS Doing Its Job

Voter intimidation groups say they were intimidated by the IRS.

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There is a deepening IRS scandal about the government’s review of Tea Party groups that sought legal status as tax-exempt charities, but it’s not what House Republicans and some Democrats including the President are spewing into the microphones and TV cameras.

Let us consider what may be an more accurate assessment of what happened. The IRS was doing its job. Its staff was overwhelmed by the thousands of obvious political groups that sought the cover of being designated as charities in the 2010 and 2012 elections; so they could raise money and hide their donors names. Some IRS employees spent far too much time or were assigned to spend time on lowest-hanging fruit—political amateur groups from the Tea Party movement—and not enough on the bigtime players, such as Karl Rove, who was lawyered up. And the IRS still has not ruled on the tactics and likes of the Roves (Crossroads GPS), Koch brothers (Americans for Prosperity) and the pro-Obama groups (Organizing for America and Priorities USA) that put millions into thepresidential election via groups pretending to be charities.

“It is breathtaking that the IRS seems to be harassing mom and pop Tea Party organizations while ignoring what appears to be the blatant abuses of the 501(c)(4) tax status right under its noe by groups pumping tens of millions of dollars into partisan political advertising,” said Gerald Hebert, director of the Campaign Legal Center, a Washington campaign finance reform organization that urged the IRS to reject the ruse. “It must enforce the law rather than turning a blind eye to widespread abuses.”

Sadly, there’s no shortage of blind eyes in this made-for-DC scandal. The Republican-controlled House had been hearing complaints in 2011 from Tea Party groups that they were harassed by the IRS—because these tiny (and sometimes not so tiny) political clubs weren’t getting rubber-stamped as social welfare organizations. The New Yorker’s legal correspondent, Jeffrey Toobin, blogs about that apparent irony, saying, “It might be useful to ask: Did the IRS actually do anything wrong?”

It’s amazing to see who the Washington Post quotes today as answering a loud ‘Yes’ to that question, as it reports that the agency’s DC office apparently was involved in the vetting of the non-profit applications. The Post turns to NRA board member and attorney Cleta Mitchell, who tried to secure non-profit tax status for the GOP’s voter intimidation group, True the Vote. This is truly political theatre of the absurd: a group whose purpose is intimidating black and brown voters is claiming it was unduly scrutinized by the IRS—because the agency somehow suspects, correctly, that they might not be a charity?

The Obama White House are hardly angels in the murky campaign finance world. They were the first presidential campaign to reject public funds in 2008. For years, Obama’s team has embraced any tactic that would allow it to raise huge sums of campaign money, including these same 501(c)(4) groups to win re-election. Their attitude is typical Washington: there’s no problem if it helps their side win.

That’s the real scandal here: how business hums along in the Washington political money circles and the biggest abusers don’t even get slaps on their wrists.

“Congressional hearings must serve as a reminder to the IRS that maintaining a ‘see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil’ stance on illegal political activity by tax-exempt groups is completely unacceptable,” the Campaign Finance Center’s Hebert said.

No doubt there will be more congressional hearings. But as the GOP’s scandal machinery revs up, you can be sure they will not be looking at the real bottom line—whether anyone who wants to create a political group can masquerade as a charity, and not pay taxes on the group’s income and hide donor’s names. Instead, they will be playing to Fox News, claiming the Obama administration is trampling on the First Amendment right to lie in political campaigns and receive government tax breaks for doing it.

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet. He is the author of several books on elections, most recently Democracy Betrayed: How Superdelegates, Redistricting, Party Insiders, and the Electoral College Rigged the 2016 Election (March 2018, Hot Books).


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