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Times article drills down deeper toward roots of IRS screw-up

The New York Times ran a story on Sunday that digs much closer to the source of the IRS/Tea Party-targeting blunder.

For “scandalgate” purposes, the key finding is that the practice of scrutinizing Tea Party applications for tax exempt status emerged as a bunch of relatively low-level IRS officials struggled with more work than they could handle and less supervision than they needed. It’s actually a pretty boring story.

Once the klieg lights of scandal have blinked on, the story is all about Republicans trying to assign responsibility for the screw-up as close to the Oval Office as they can get. If so, this story is a deep flesh wound to the scandal mongerers. I can’t say it’s a mortal wound, of course. The Times has no subpoena power nor were any of its witnesses under oath. Many of the sources are not named, although plenty of them are. The main point of this aside is not to exaggerate the exculpatory nature of the Times findings and to note that the smoking gun of high-up political motives may yet be discovered by those who do have the power to compel testimony.

But, instead of starting their research from the goal of tracing the mess as close to the Oval Office as possible, the Times seems to have started by asking: How did this practice of focusing on Tea Party-related organizations begin? The story (which has three bylines at the top and credits four more reporters at the bottom) summarizes its findings thus:

While there are still many gaps in the story of how the I.R.S. scandal happened, interviews with current and former employees and with lawyers who dealt with them, along with a review of I.R.S. documents, paint a more muddled picture of an understaffed Cincinnati outpost that was alienated from the broader I.R.S. culture and given little direction.

Overseen by a revolving cast of midlevel managers, stalled by miscommunication with I.R.S. lawyers and executives in Washington and confused about the rules they were enforcing, the Cincinnati specialists flagged virtually every application with Tea Party in its name. But their review went beyond conservative groups: more than 400 organizations came under scrutiny, including at least two dozen liberal-leaning ones and some that were seemingly apolitical.

Over three years, as the office struggled with a growing caseload of advocacy groups seeking tax exemptions, responsibility for the cases moved from one group of specialists to another, and the Determinations Unit, which handles all nonprofit applications, was reorganized. One batch of cases sat ignored for months. Few if any of the employees were experts on tax law, contributing to waves of questionnaires about groups’ political activity and donors that top officials acknowledge were improper.

On a related note: After writing in her Wall Street Journal column that the IRS mess was “the worst political scandal since Watergate,” Peggy Noonan was challenged by “Meet the Press” moderator David Gregory to compare the enormous level of direct Nixonian involvement in Watergate to the (so far) utter lack of any Obamian fingerprints on IRS-gate (or whatever we’re going to call it).

Replied Noonan“The President wasn’t passive on that stuff. He was giving dog whistle sounds.”

The argument here, and Noonan credited her Wall Street Journal teammate Kim Strassel for developing it in a column headlined “The IRS Scandal Started at the Top,” is that during the campaign, Obama criticized various conservative and Republican groups (that’s the “whistle”) and what the “dogs” (that’s the IRS) hear is that the president is directing them to harass those whom the president criticizes.

If Obama wants to be blameless, all he has to do is refrain from publicly criticizing his political opponents.

Writing for Salon, Joan Walsh suggests that the dog whistle argument is an admission by the Republican establishment that they aren’t going to be able find any Obamian fingerprints on this mess.

Comments (19)

  1. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 05/20/2013 - 10:43 am.

    So Noonan expects no political statements by a President in a re-election campaign?

    What was she famous for, again?

    So the “scandal” depends on two ideas about the 2012 election: the nascent Tea Party organizations were prima facie “non-political”; and Obama was “political”.

    Just another iteration of the “victimhood” meme of the right.

  2. Submitted by Steve Roth on 05/20/2013 - 12:36 pm.

    Noonan

    Yet again, I am simply baffled and amazed at the amount of media Peggy Noonan receives. She long ago should have been lumped in with the lower-rung RW media crazies. Yet, despite embarrassing herself regularly, she still gets a platform.

  3. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 05/20/2013 - 01:14 pm.

    Just more evidence

    that the IRS, overworked because of Republican cuts in their budget, concentrated on groups with a record of requesting an inappropriate status.
    Conservative Republicans are unhappy because they got caught.

    • Submitted by Peder DeFor on 05/20/2013 - 03:38 pm.

      Inappropriate Status

      Paul, you’re completely wrong here and I hope that you’ll correct yourself. After the IRS was told that they needed to apply things in an even-handed way, the Patriot/Tea Party groups were approved. They hadn’t been making an inappropriate request at all. They were unfairly hounded.

      • Submitted by Logan Foreman on 05/20/2013 - 05:31 pm.

        Frankly Peder you are completely

        Wrong. None of these political advocacy groups – liberal or conservative or tea party – should be considered non-profits for tax purposes. They are purely political – there is not a charitable bone in any of those groups. Simple solution – pass a bill eliminating these groups’ right to claim this tax status.

        BTW Peder, if they wrongfully received the benefit of this section from IRS, where is the damage? Just their typical reaction to blame a black President for whatever occurs.

        Finally, please note that this IRS office was located in Cincinnati right on the Kentucky border right where a particular senator lives. I have been there many times – those people in that area can not spell liberal.

        • Submitted by Peder DeFor on 05/21/2013 - 07:28 am.

          Problems

          First of all, thank you for the casual accusation of racism. It fits in well with what I said down below. And it blends well with your aggressive ignorance. Also, you can look down there to see that you’re misinformed on the social welfare need for these groups.
          If you want to argue that we should outlaw political non-profits, then go ahead and do so. But don’t sweep the disparate treatment under the rug. In 2010 and 2012 left leaning groups were allowed to organize on the grass roots level while right leaning groups were held back. (Note, I’m not saying this tipped the elections.) This is outrageous. Even if the law is wrong, it still needs to be applied evenly.
          “… if they wrongfully received the benefit of this section from IRS, where is the damage?”
          There is damage in how long it took for them to be approved. For months and sometimes years, these groups were held in limbo and not sure how to act. They also had to spend hundreds of man hours to fill out forms, all in constant fear of more aggressive IRS action. And that doesn’t even get to the wildly intrusive nature of some of the questions. Needless to say, there are very few situations where the government should be asking people what they were praying about and this ain’t one of them.

          • Submitted by Logan Foreman on 05/21/2013 - 09:19 am.

            Your comments simply confirm

            That all these purely political organizations should not be considered non-profits for tax purposes. There is enough money in politics. I’ll stand by my comment that many of these tea party people will blame our President for anything and everything; some still deny his birth place. Use any word that you like for that behavior. As for aggressive ignorance, read all your posts again.

          • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 05/21/2013 - 02:56 pm.

            Peder, Peder, Peder

            You’re scrambling all sorts of right-eous indignation together.
            The question is not whether right or left groups were organizing on the ground.
            It’s whether:
            1. The were organizing for political purposes, and
            2. If so, they were asking for a tax status expressly excluded for political organizations which would allow them to hide their donors.

            And I see no accusation of racism.

            Again, see my link to Nate Silver’s statistical analysis of the selection of groups for auditing.

      • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 05/20/2013 - 06:39 pm.

        Sorry, Peder

        SOME TP requests were approved; mostly small operations.
        Saying that Karl Rove and Crossroads were interested primarily in social welfare was still a blatant misrepresentation.
        Obama (and in turn the IRS) knuckled under to political pressure; not for the first time.
        If you’re looking for a scandal, that’s it.

        • Submitted by Peder DeFor on 05/21/2013 - 07:40 am.

          Small Operations

          You have this exactly wrong. The big ones sailed through, it was the small ones that had trouble. Also, see my comment down below on ‘social welfare’. You’re misunderstanding it. And the Crossroads folks obviously believe that what they’re doing is something positive. That’s not for you to judge. Personally, I’d rather go with their vision than just about any group with Progress or Organizing in their name. I bet your mileage varies.

          I saw the Nate Silver article that you mentioned and I think he’s right. It’s hard to know if any personal audits were politically motivated because there is a huge amount of them. Some of those will certainly hit big money conservatives, even if they’re done randomly.
          But now that we know that the IRS didn’t work randomly and certainly not apolitically, it’s fair to ask just how random some of the audits were. Several of the smaller Tea Party group leaders have complained about audits into their personal lives and private businesses. Even visits from other agencies like OSHA and ATF. There were about 90 small groups held back by the IRS. If, say, 30 of them got audits that reached well beyond the non-profits, that’s a problem.

      • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 05/20/2013 - 06:51 pm.

        Nate Silver

        of the NYT has an interesting statistical analysis at:

        http://fivethirtyeight.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/05/17/new-audit-allegations-show-flawed-statistical-thinking/

  4. Submitted by Peder DeFor on 05/20/2013 - 03:25 pm.

    Times Article

    First paragraph: “During the summer of 2010, the dozen or so accountants and tax agents of Group 7822 of the Internal Revenue Service office in Cincinnati got a directive from their manager. A growing number of organizations identifying themselves as part of the Tea Party had begun applying for tax exemptions, the manager said, advising the workers to be on the lookout for them and other groups planning to get involved in elections.”
    In the first sentence it says that this directive came from ‘their manager’ which doesn’t really fit the theme that this idea was launched from the accountants and tax agents themselves. The article itself says that this was at least one level up from them. Then it glosses over that in the conclusion.
    Also, according to the IG report, groups with Tea Party and Patriot in their names were targeted at the beginning of March, not ‘the summer of 2010’. I don’t know how much of the rest of the writing is suspect, but it doesn’t inspire confidence to mess up the chronology in the first few words. And this chronology is important.
    Read the first point here for instance: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/fact-checker/post/a-bushel-of-pinocchios-for-irss-lois-lerner/2013/05/19/771687d2-bfdd-11e2-9b09-1638acc3942e_blog.html
    There was no surge of Tea Party and/or Patriot applications in 2010. Certainly not some deluge that forced some well meaning low level agents to cut corners (that just happened to screw the Presidents opponents).
    This talking point is simply wrong.

  5. Submitted by Peder DeFor on 05/20/2013 - 03:36 pm.

    Noonan

    I’m not convinced that Noonan is right, that we can trace bad actions to Obama based on his detestation of the Tea Partiers, but I don’t think she’s really being correctly characterized here. The Strassel article that you mention goes far beyond mere criticism. It talks about how private citizens were singled out for mention in ads for the sin of opposing Obama, for instance. That goes well beyond some kind of policy argument. (The example in the article was also well after the IRS went off of the rails.)
    I don’t know that she’s completely wrong though. Ever since some people started getting loud at public meetings in 2009, there has been a concerted effort from the left to portray opposition as racist, treasonous and/or crazy. Especially racist. There has been a thinly veiled attempt to make small government ideas out of bounds in public discourse.
    It’s not hard at all to see how some people with far too much power and far too little supervision, would get the idea that they had some sort of duty to stop those crazy treasonous racists.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 05/20/2013 - 06:48 pm.

      Yes

      A few people on the Left have made some outrageous statements, but to call it a “concerted effort'” (implying an organized action by a group of organizations) is a bit of a stretch.
      You’re wandering off in the aether again.

      BTW — how many TP organizations were actually assessed for taxes that they did not in fact owe? THAT would be harassment. Just being asked questions about your returns is a fact of life.

  6. Submitted by Peder DeFor on 05/20/2013 - 10:04 pm.

    Social Welfare

    Before this scandal began, I had no idea what the requirements were and I too, would have been fooled by the ‘social welfare’ requirement. It doesn’t mean that a group must be working in some non-political way. Here is a good article on it: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-05-14/don-t-buy-the-social-welfare-defense-of-the-irs.html
    In short, by social welfare, a group is simply not working for an obvious personal interest. The example in the article is that a group of utilities can’t lobby for higher utility prices. But a Tea Party group absolutely can get together to promote their politics and school of thought.
    But even if what they were doing *should* be illegal, it isn’t up to the IRS to declare it so. Especially since they’re only holding one side to that standard. That’s like saying that the police can change procedure on booking criminals without any input from higher ups.

    • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 05/21/2013 - 08:37 am.

      From the article you reference..

      (quote)

      There are limits: 501(c)(4)’s can’t have electioneering as a primary purpose (such organizations must incorporate as 527s, which have to disclose their donors) and they cannot coordinate directly with political parties. They can’t have a narrow focus of advancing their funders’ financial interests; for example, utility companies can’t form a 501(c)4 to lobby for higher utility rates.

      (end quote)

      So the groups that:
      * organized in response to an impending election
      * were primarily running against the re-election of the godless Kenyan socialist
      * had the stated intent of creating a Tea Party take-over of the Republican party
      * and, always said they wanted to pay less taxes in their own financial interests
      Despite those, they were clearly eligible for the tax exempt status of 501c4?

      Any questioning of that was unjustified?

      Ha.

      • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 05/21/2013 - 01:10 pm.

        Accretion

        And of course the tax code is an accreted mess proposed by special interest lobbyists (mostly purchased by large corporations). As things currently stand, there is no such thing as a correctly filled out form. Consumer Reports once had a number of professionals (CPAs, tax lawyers, H&R Block supervisors and IRS experts) fill out the same form based on the same information. None of them came out the same.
        The real answer is a zero point rewrite of the tax code. This is unlikely to happen, since any congressperson voting for it would alienate important supporters who would lose tax breaks (including home owners).

        Until then, we will have controversy since anyone can challenge an IRS judgement against them and come up with a legal (although arguable) basis for it.

        Remember: a camel is a horse invented by a committee.

  7. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 05/21/2013 - 09:31 am.

    Drill, baby, drill

    This may all turn out to be exactly what those who like to call themselves “conservative” imagine it to be. Nothing I’ve seen so far does very much to do that, however. Farhad Manjoo on Slate suggests that the experience might be painful enough that those who call themselves “conservative” might be inclined to support measures to rein in the profiling of political groups (excuse me… “social welfare” groups) altogether, but I won’t be holding my breath waiting for that to happen.

    Tea Party types have specialized in attack-dog tactics regarding people and policies with which they disagree, while simultaneously practicing the language and posture of victimhood when they find themselves on the other end of that particular modus operandi. It’s a combination that inspires no confidence in this household. I might be more personally sympathetic if the Tea Party were equally outraged by the Citizens United decision that made the whole tax-exempt, “social welfare organization” syndrome possible in the first place, but that doesn’t seem to be happening, either.

    I do agree that Ms. Noonan, who’s made a nice living from innuendo in a political context, is not someone in whom to place a lot of faith regarding factual accuracy. If we’re going to lower the bar enough to label her as a “pundit,” then she’s the Michele Bachmann of pundits, a title to which no thinking person should aspire.

    While I wouldn’t want to claim that the Cincinnati IRS office was being evenhanded in the application of relevant IRS policy — there’s certainly enough smoke here to merit further investigation — much of the subsequent fallout is coming from people with political motivations so painfullly obvious that even I can see them. While it seems likely that some IRS employees stepped over a line here, it seems equally likely that Republicans are doing their utmost to whip those transgressions into some sort of full-blown scandal which they hope to attach to the current President. Ronald Reagan acquired a reputation as the “Teflon President,” as repeated genuine scandals managed somehow not to affect his reputation with the public — to the utter disgust of those on the left. It’ll be interesting to see how Republicans react if Mr. Obama manages to display the same sort of Teflon-esque public perception.

    In the end, my own 2¢ is that Joan Walsh’s Salon argument seems most likely. Meanwhile, I continue to look for that lengthy list of Karl Rove’s contributions to the social welfare of the country.

  8. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 05/22/2013 - 09:28 am.

    Random

    When faced with a huge load of documents that I have to identify specific pieces of information from, I work methodically to weed out those that are obviously not going to contain the information I want and flag the ones that I will need to review more thoroughly. I then go through the flagged ones and do a more thorough review. This is exactly what I would have done if faced with the same situation the IRS agents were faced with. It’s not random at all and SHOULDN’T BE. It’s methodical, and flagging an application doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s being unfairly held up. It means that it should be further reviewed. In the interest of getting a job done, it would make absolute sense to flag those that seem blatantly political for further review. This is a non-scandal.

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