IRS probe should be wide-ranging

Allow me to agree with Republicans and members of the media who are up in arms over revelations that low level staffers of the Internal Revenue Service took a shortcut in cutting through the flood of applications for 501(c)4 status starting in 2010. The IRS has admitted the staffers inappropriately flagged applicants with “tea party,” “patriots” or “9/12” (presumably, for Glenn Beck’s “9/12 Movement”) in their names for extra scrutiny.

The Inspector General’s report found no dark, White House conspiracy by an agency run at the time by Doug Shulman, a Republican and George W. Bush-appointee who retired last November. But the Justice Department has opened an investigation to see if any laws were broken.

I’m all for a thoroughgoing investigation of the Internal Revenue Service. Perhaps by a blue ribbon panel. Or maybe Rep. Darrell Issa could take some time off scouring Infowars for Benghazi “revelations” to have his committee look into it.

But any review of the IRS should not begin and end with the Tea Party. Shouldn’t we also want to know:

• Whether the IRS resumed the nefarious politicized practices of the Nixon era when in 2004 under then commissioner Mark W. Everson, it targeted the NAACP for an intrusive, two-year audit, which could have resulted in the loss of its 501(c)3 tax exempt status. The IRS at the time pegged the audit to criticism of then President Bush and the Iraq war by former NAACP chairman Julian Bond.

• Was the 2004 audit part of a pattern of harassment of the civil rights organization by the Bush-appointed commissioner, or his predecessor, Charles O. Rossotti, dating back to December 2000? At the time, a half dozen members of Congress, including Sen. Susan Collins of Maine and the late Sen. Strom Thurmond, wrote to the commissioner to complain about NAACP leaders who were critical of the Supreme Court decision on the presidential election that favored the majority’s preferred candidate, George W. Bush. They also asked the agency to review, or revoke, the NAACP’s tax exempt status.

• Did the IRS respond to the St. Louis Tea Party’s 2010 call for the IRS to strip the NAACP of its 501(c)3 for passing a resolution calling on the tea party movement to repudiate any racists in their midst?

• What was behind the IRS’ 2006 hiring of a private contractor to inquire into the political affiliation of Americans in 20 states, including Florida, and the District of Columbia, which Sen. Party Murray, D-Wash., called “an outrageous violation of the public trust?”

• Who ordered the IRS probe of All Saints Episcopal Church, one of Southern California’s largest liberal congregations, which received an IRS warning letter in 2004 after its former rector delivered a sermon opposing the Iraq war?

• And most importantly, what is behind the IRS policy of so loosely interpreting its own regulations, that clearly political entities like Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS, the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity, the Republican political consultant-run Tea Party Express, and the Democratic-leaning Priorities USA, can operate as “social welfare organizations,” obtaining what amounts to a taxpayer subsidy for their blatantly political activities via this preferred tax status?

These groups collectively spent $1 billion in the last presidential election, 70 percent by conservative groups opposed to President Obama’s reelection, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. What form of social welfare were they promoting, exactly, and why should taxpayers subsidize their political speech?

• For all the sturm und drang over those IRS officials, they didn’t deny a single application. But isn’t it possible that at least some of the hundreds of groups seeking tax exempt status were nothing more than political consultants using the “tea party” name to make a buck off gullible donors?

The right is very good at whipping the media into a “scandal” frenzy. But wouldn’t it be important to find out whether the IRS has been doing its job since Citizens United unbarred the gates to unlimited corporate money in politics?

The IRS shouldn’t be doing less stringent reviews of 501(c)4 applications, just as they shouldn’t single out groups on the left or the right. At minimum, they should be stingy about granting special tax status to political PACs in social welfare clothing.

So bring on the hearings.

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