EDITORIAL: More smoke at the IRS -- and not only from the hard drives [Chicago Tribune :: ]
(Chicago Tribune (IL) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) June 22--"It's inexcusable, and Americans are right to be angry about it, and I am angry about it. I will not tolerate this kind of behavior in any agency, but especially in the IRS, given the power that it has and the reach that it has into all of our lives. ... I'll do everything in my power to make sure nothing like this happens again by holding the responsible parties accountable. ..."
-- President Barack Obama condemning "misconduct" at the Internal Revenue Service, May 15, 2013.
With each plot twist in "The Internal Revenue Service and its Keen Attention to Conservative Groups," political partisans scurry to their bunkers. Flying spittle! Battle stations! Raise the long guns!
Not us. We calmly re-read President Obama's reassurance of 13 months ago, especially that phrase about holding the responsible parties accountable. Because consequences can't occur until all of us learn the who, what, when, where and why. It was around the same time, Carl M. Cannon of RealClearPolitics reported Friday, that the president told reporters aboard Air Force One that the IRS misconduct was the work of rogue agents in Ohio -- "two Dilberts in Cincinnati."
But, like the rest of us, the president has since read news accounts establishing that IRS officials in Washington were communicating extensively about the agency's scrutiny of conservative groups. We also now know that several Democratic senators, including Dick Durbin of Illinois, had urged the IRS to look into some of these groups. And we know that, in 2012, top IRS officials repeatedly misled Congress by not disclosing -- in response to highly specific questions -- that the agency was giving extraordinary attention to conservative groups.
Are those data points connected? Or are they mere coincidences? None of us yet knows the origins, motivations and scope of the agency's actions. In May 2013 we wrote that with their stonewalling, claimed ignorance and convenient amnesia, IRS officials were making it difficult for Americans to evaluate the depth, but also the official awareness, of the agency's evident assault on free speech.
At the time we didn't know that the agency would resist congressional demands for full disclosures. Nor did we know that seven IRS workers -- including Lois Lerner, former director of the agency's tax-exempt organizations division -- would report losing emails that congressional investigators wanted to examine.
On a matter this serious, the administration can't adequately investigate itself. Given the amount of smoke now rising from the IRS, many Americans won't be much interested in what one arm of the administration concludes about other arms, including the IRS, the Treasury Department of which it's part, and possibly the White House.
That's why we've urged Attorney General Eric Holder to appoint a special prosecutor -- a phrase that, like "customer support" or "designated hitter," provokes Pavlovian suspicions. We've been skeptical of some special prosecutors and their tendency toward mission creep. But we've also seen situations where only a special prosecutor has the independence and credibility to resolve a case that drips with politics, as when then-U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald of Chicago investigated (and convicted of perjury and other offenses) I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, who had been Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff.
Why Holder won't act is a mystery he's inviting Americans to resolve, uncharitably, in their own minds.
Whatever any one of us thinks about this scandal -- from "Republican grandstanding" to "another Watergate" -- all of us can agree that it's slathered in hot politics. Remember the context:
In the 2010 congressional election, well-funded conservative groups led a sea-to-sea GOP victory march. At both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, Democrats forcefully complained that some of the groups were engaged in political activity that their tax-exempt status didn't allow.
Democrats worried that the 2012 presidential election would be a repeat. In June 2012, five months before that election, an inspector general told top Treasury officials that he was investigating IRS targeting of tax-exempt groups. So:
Did that juicy news, with its potential to capsize a presidential campaign, travel beyond Treasury? Beats us. But anyone who isn't curious about the answer to that question probably bivouacs in one of those bunkers discussed at the top of this editorial.
President Obama was right. Given the reach that it has into all of our lives, none of us can ignore the IRS and questions about its conduct.
And now there's one more question ascendant: This 13-month refusal to name a special prosecutor has become its own curiosity.
Join in the discussion on the Chicago Tribune Editorial Board's Facebook page or on Twitter by following @Trib_Ed_Board.
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