For weeks, starting in May, Fox fanned the flames. Based on what we now know to be a flawed audit by Inspector General J. Russell George, Fox reported that the IRS had deliberately targeted right-wing groups seeking tax-exempt status. According to breathless Fox News anchors, the IRS first singled out conservative organizations by drawing up a “Be on the Lookout,” or BOLO, list using keywords like “patriot” and “Tea Party.” Then they picked on those same organizations by asking them for tons of irrelevant information and dragging their applications out for months. And, if you can believe Fox News, all of this was carried out by the IRS on direct orders from the Obama White House.
Meanwhile, Issa, chairman of the House Oversight Committee, has held four congressional hearings so far, accusing the IRS of conducting a Tea Party witch hunt. In typical Issa fashion, he ratcheted the rhetoric up even higher, tying the IRS to the White House and comparing President Obama to Richard Nixon. Issa said on “CBS This Morning”: “This was targeting of the president’s political enemies, effectively, and lies about it during the election year so that it wasn’t discovered until afterwards. ... This process was deliberate, and it was repeated.”
Shamefully, most of the mainstream media merely echoed charges made by Fox and Issa, leaving the American people with the impression of a giant Washington scandal where Democrats were using government bureaucrats to crucify Republicans. But now the truth comes out: It was all one big fat lie.
Independent investigations by both Yahoo News and Politico reveal that the IRS, in fact, investigated both conservative and liberal groups applying for tax-exempt status. And, indeed, it’s important that the IRS do so. The law clearly states that only organizations devoted to “social welfare” can receive a coveted tax exemption because we taxpayers should not be subsidizing any purely political groups on the right or left. IRS officials were merely trying to enforce the law, perhaps clumsily, when faced with a flood of new political organizations filing for tax-exempt status after the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in January 2010.
By far, most of the applicants were conservative groups. But Yahoo and Politico discovered that the IRS applied the same rules to both right-wing and left-wing applicants. Inspector General George was wrong. They didn’t just draw up a BOLO list with keywords like “patriot” for conservatives. They drew up a BOLO list for liberals with key words like “progressive,” “occupy,” medical marijuana,” and “Israel.” They looked at organizations on both the left and right. They asked both sides for extensive documentation to demonstrate they were, indeed, social welfare organizations. And, in the end, there was only one group actually denied tax-exempt status because it was set up “primarily for the benefit of a political party.” That was not a tea party group. It was the unabashedly liberal group Emerge America.
As for Issa’s claim that IRS staffers were politically motivated and merely following orders from the White House, there is zero evidence to support it. At one hearing, Issa repeatedly pressed IRS veterans Elizabeth Hofacre and Carter Hull on whether they knew of any political motivation by people inside the IRS or any influence from outside the IRS to target conservative organizations. They said “no.” In its lead editorial July 18, USA Today questioned why Issa persisted with his investigation: “No political operatives from the Obama campaign or the White House have been linked to any of the IRS’ activities.”
So why was there such a fuss over IRS scrutiny of conservative groups? Two reasons. First, as noted, because Inspector General George’s initial report itself was, at best, one-sided. Second, because liberal groups didn’t complain as loudly, or, in most cases, didn’t complain at all. They understood that getting tax-exempt status should not be automatic. “If you’re going to ask for exceptional treatment, you should expect to go through exceptional screening,” Ed Espinoza, executive director of the liberal organization Progress Texas, told Politico. But conservatives whined louder and got all the attention.
Conservative witch hunt? In the end, it boils down to this: The IRS was only doing its job. There was no scandal.
Bill Press is host of a nationally-syndicated radio show.