Sunday, February 18, 2018
Opinion

Ruth: When light put on 'scandal,' it evaporates

Sometimes a scandal turns out merely to be a big, fat, juicy (and this is a highly technical public administration term) oopsie-whoopsie.

In recent weeks, Washington — at least official Republican Washington — has been abuzz over allegations that the paper-pushing Stasi over at the Internal Revenue Service had singled out right-wing/conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status for extra-special scrutiny, investigation and bureaucratic persecution.

Oh, "The Beltway Ox-Bow Incident" of it all!

The wailing began in the wake of disclosures that the IRS had flagged groups with the words "patriot" or "tea party" in their names in order to determine if they should receive 501(c)(3) tax-exempt charitable status.

That set California Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Inspector Javert, into a crusade to link the Obama White House to the perceived skewed IRS vetting process in the midst of the 2012 election cycle.

Hearings were called. IRS officials were hauled before Issa's browbeating House Oversight Committee to explain themselves. The Fugitive's Dr. Richard Kimble wasn't as aggressively pursued by Lt. Gerard.

But a funny thing happened on the way to Watergate meets Teapot Dome.

Yes, the IRS Cincinnati office charged with reviewing tax-exempt applications created a list of key words to identify right-leaning groups, but the agency also used the same methodology to select liberal organizations and other charities without an overtly political bias to investigate as well.

In the immortal words of that noted political philosopher Scooby Doo: "Rut-roh!"

The events that turned Darrell Issa into Dog, The Obama Hunter, began in 2010 when the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in the Citizens United case unleashed a floodgate of dubiously titled organizations free to raise unlimited — and more importantly largely unaccounted for — contributions that could then be used for thinly veiled partisan political speech.

As the New York Times reported, following the Citizens United decision, between 2010 and 2012 the IRS received 199,689 applications seeking tax-exempt status. In 2012 alone, the IRS was swamped with 73,319 501(c)(3) applications.

Suppose you were Lois Lerner, the now suspended IRS official who oversaw the tax-exempt vetting process. You're drowning under the weight of nearly 200,000 applications from everyone on the right, the left and various other groups seeking a tax exemption.

Everyone wants their application acted upon in a timely fashion. What do you do?

If it was the goal of the review process to determine if the applicant was truly a "social welfare" organization dedicated to providing information about a particular subject versus a lightly cloaked partisan political group more interested in raising unlimited funds, wouldn't it make sense to create a list of key words to identify a potentially hinky agency?

Of course the IRS could have adopted a more thoughtful standard in its effort to sort out the altruists from the money-grubbing hucksters. But this is the mother of all dispassionate bean counters in government, not the St. Francis of Assisi Foundation of Tax Law.

To put it another way: The IRS's ham-handed scrutiny of applicants for tax-exempt status does not rise to the level of a scandal. More probable, this was nothing more than unfettered Excel spreadsheets gone wild.

The New York Times also reported that of the 73,319 applications submitted in 2012, about 50,000 of those requests for tax-exempt status were approved. It's not as if Dr. No was overseeing the process.

Now Rep. Charles Boustany Jr., a Louisiana Republican, who sits on the Ways and Means Committee, has conceded no political motivation seemed to be involved in the manner in which the IRS reviewed applications. And Sen. Roy Blount, a Missouri Republican, admitted that efforts to link the IRS treatment of applicants to the White House were unfounded.

But those misgivings are unlikely to prevent Issa, the Blade Runner of the Potomac, from continuing his probe of IRS employees who simply did something not very bright.

But incompetence or indifference to the public relations optics by a bunch of IRS factotums do not make a scandal. The real question is why Issa won't admit that or doesn't know the difference.

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