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It's time to investigate the IRS

Richard Nixon ordered the IRS to conduct tax audits of those on his infamous “Enemies List.” Now, a spate of investigations and leaks coming out of President Obama’s IRS raises concerns that this administration may also be using the power of the nation’s most feared agency to silence its political opponents. 

Today, more than six dozen grassroots citizens groups seeking to gain 501(c)(4)—and in some cases 501(c)(3)--tax status today find themselves facing unexpectedly invasive investigations and onerous procedural hurdles. All these groups have received non-profit recognition at the state level. Yet their requests for IRS recognition have been left in bureaucratic limbo for months—in some cases, for more than two years. 

Now they are being told to complete long and tortuous questionnaires seeking proprietary, irrelevant and sensitive information such as names and addresses of donors, as well as detailed descriptions of every event the group had held in the past year and transcripts of the remarks of all speakers. 

The targets of these investigations have one thing in common: they are exclusively conservative or Tea Party-affiliated organizations. Moreover, the invasive tactics arose shortly after seven liberal senators, including Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and Al Franken (D-Minn.), wrote a letter to the IRS claiming the groups were running afoul of their tax-exempt status. 

The conservative organizations have sought (c)(4) status to engage in legally permissible grassroots lobbying activities, virtually all of it working against ObamaCare. -- This has apparently generated the intrusive letters from the IRS. 

As detailed in an extensive complaint filed with the IRS by Washington lawyer Cleta Mitchell, liberal 501(c)(3) organizations such as CREW are seemingly allowed to violate the federal law’s prohibition of “intervention in political campaigns.” Yet the grassroots efforts of Tea Party organizations opposing President Obama’s signature legislative victory have somehow uniformly triggered the strict scrutiny of the president’s IRS. This selective enforcement in itself justifies a congressional investigation of the IRS. 

In a separate instance of bureaucratic malfeasance, it appears that some within today’s IRS are even willing to break federal law to publicly disclose the private donor information of conservative non-profits. 

Somehow, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), a gay advocacy group, got its hands on Schedule B of the tax return filed by the National Organization for Marriage (NOM)—a conservative values organization that has sparred with the administration and liberal groups over homosexual marriage. The HRC – soon followed by scores of left-leaning publications, magazines, and blogs like the Huffington Post and Mother Jones – published the confidential document that revealed the names, contact information, and donation amounts of anyone who had given over $5,000 to NOM. 

NOM has called for immediate investigations by the Justice Department and the Treasury Department’s Inspector General to determine how HRC gained possession of this document. 

The posted documents contained original, official IRS markings that could only have come from individuals within the agency. Disclosing this confidential information by anyone at the IRS is a felony, punishable by fines of up to $5,000 and/or imprisonment for up to five years. Printing or publishing the schedule is also a crime, similarly punishable, which means that the HRC (and the Huffington Post) are potentially in deep legal trouble. 

The original IRS information entered on the Schedule B posted on the HRC website as a pdf document had been artfully obscured. But in a great example of Internet detective work, NOM was able to remove the added layer and uncover the IRS information put on the form by the agency’s computer system. NOM concluded that the only possible source of the illegally published document was the IRS. “Either the [donors list] was deliberately and illegally released by one or more IRS employees or someone has breached the IRS computer system,” NOM observed. 

NOM submitted requests for investigation over a month ago, first to the IRS Inspector General J. Russell George, and subsequently to DOJ Assistant Attorney General for Tax, Kathryn Keneally. These investigations are apparently underway, but in the meantime, the confidential tax return information remains posted on the Huffington Post website. 

Freedom of association (a basic Constitutional right) and the rule of law (a necessity of free and fair government) are being eroded by these underhanded, Chicago-style tactics. But for the ideological zealots within the federal government and their allies in left-wing advocacy groups, black letter law is apparently just another obstacle to re-election or to attacking one’s public policy opponents. 

The IG and the DOJ need to undertake their investigations with utmost seriousness, swiftness and impartiality. And they should bring criminal indictments against anyone inside or outside of the IRS found to be responsible for these abuses of federal tax power. This kind of behavior is simply unacceptable, for it threatens the liberty and freedom of Americans who want to participate in the political process.

Hans A. von Spakovsky is a former Justice Department official. He is the co-author, with John Fund of  "Obama's Enforcer: Eric Holder's Justice Department" (Broadside/HarperCollins 2014). He is Manager, Election Law Reform Initiative and Senior Legal Fellow at the Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at the Heritage Foundation.