The scandal enveloping the Obama administration – the IRS scandal I mean, who can keep track? — is in part a tale of illicitly using the tax agency to chill, intimidate and bully the administration’s political opponents. However, a key line of inquiry remains to be addressed: where is the information the IRS collected, who has access to it, and how has it been used?
Investigators looking into the IRS operation will focus on its mechanics; who was involved, how was it conducted, and where the scheme originated. In part, the grueling process was itself the operation’s purpose. Putting conservative groups seeking to exercise their First Amendment freedoms through a bureaucratic nightmare would have a useful chilling effect, from the Obama administration’s point of view.
The IRS subjected conservative groups to a breathtaking scope of questioning – lists of members, lists of donors, minutes of meetings, budgets, expenses, activities, anything and everything. The information demanded went well beyond anything that was reasonably needed for the IRS to conduct a review of these organizations for tax exempt status. The operation comes across more like a criminal investigation, or the ultimate tool for opposition political research. In the process the IRS compiled an impressive database on the grassroots conservative movement.
Evidence is emerging that this information may have been used against the president’s political opponents. There are stories of taxpayers who never had any problems with the tax agency who suddenly found themselves the objects of persistent audits after they were identified as politically active conservatives. So how did information collected by the Tax Exempt and Government Entities Division pass to the other relevant divisions (Wage and Investment, or Small Business/Self-Employed) to become the basis for ordering audits? What information, if any, was passed to the powerful Criminal Investigation office, and why? And what happened next?
Tracing the chain of custody within the IRS is only the first step. The next question is, what other government agencies were given access to the IRS conservative database? Catherine Engelbrecht, founder of “True the Vote,” has not only been subjected to relentless IRS audits but also has been questioned by the FBI, the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, and Tobacco and Firearms (BATF), and her business has faced surprise audits by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). What other conservative activists have faced suspicious inquiries from government entities outside the IRS? How was the information that established the basis for an inquiry passed to them, by whom, and on whose orders?
A branch of this trail leads directly to the White House. In August 2010 Obama economic advisor Austan Goolsbee told reporters in an anonymous background briefing that “Koch Industries doesn’t pay corporate income taxes.” Charles and David Koch have been active supporters of conservative causes. How did a White House advisor get private information regarding their business taxes? Why was he ordered to convey it to the press anonymously, and by whom? What else was being fed to the press based on confidential tax information?
This week Stephanie Cutter, former deputy campaign manager for Obama 2012, attempted to defend former IRS chief Douglas Shulman, whose hundreds, or dozens, or Easter egg hunt visits to the White House have come under sharp scrutiny. “Many of those meetings were for healthcare implementation,” she said. “I was in them with him. So there’s nothing nefarious going on.” Cutter’s lack of self-awareness on this issue is remarkable, given the crucial nexus between the IRS scandal and Obamacare. Presumably the meetings she was referring to took place before she signed on to the Obama campaign in November 2011, while she served as Assistant to the President for Special Projects, or Deputy Senior Advisor to the President. But having someone who served at top levels on both sides of the policy/political divide present at the (number yet-to-be-determined) Shulman White House meetings does not support the conclusion that there was “nothing nefarious going on.” It may suggest the opposite.
The third and certainly illegal use of the database may have been to leak sensitive tax and other information to groups outside of government. The IRS gave the investigative journalists at ProPublica confidential documents of nine conservative organizations that had not yet been reviewed and cleared, as is required under law. In March 2012 the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) published a confidential tax return of the National Organization for Marriage which opposes the HRC on the gay marriage issue. Where did it get that return? And does it matter that HRC head Joe Solmonese was serving as a national co-chair of President Obama’s re-election campaign?
It remains to be determined how much confidential information was being shared within the IRS, among government agencies and leaked to outside groups. And it would also be interesting to find out where that database resides right now, and if and how it is still being used. Just a thought.
James S. Robbins is Deputy Editor of Rare. Follow him on Twitter @James_Robbins