Paul Jacob

You don’t need an explanation. These aren’t the partisan political abuses you’re looking for. Move along.

It was all a big mistake. An unfortunate, accidental error. And “what difference does it make?” anyway, since according to the New York Times headline, the “I.R.S. Apologizes to Tea Party Groups Over Audits of Applications for Tax Exemption.”

Yes, indeed, the IRS says it is sorry.

But not actually to the Tea Party and Patriot organizations, whose equal rights under the law the agency so flagrantly violated. Instead, last week, Lois Lerner, the Director of Exempt Organizations for the Internal Revenue Service, admitted before an audience of lawyers at a conference in Washington, D.C. — after years of official agency denials — that the IRS had indeed singled out “names like Tea Party or Patriots” and subjected those groups’ applications for non-profit status to extra scrutiny.

Conservative groups seeking tax-exempt recognition were sent long, intrusive questionnaires, followed by demands to produce thousands of pages of documents, including lists of members and donors.

“It really was a nightmare,” complained Portage County Ohio Tea Partier Tom Zawistowski. “They came back with requests for: 'Give us a list of all your members. Tell us every politician that ever spoke to your group and what they spoke about. Give us a list of all the speakers you’ve ever had speak to your group. Give us a copy of every page of your webpage, in paper; print out every page of your Facebook page.’”

“That was wrong, that was absolutely incorrect, insensitive, and inappropriate,” Lerner acknowledged, adding, “That’s not how we go about selecting cases for further review.”

Of course, while saying “that’s not how” the IRS works, she was disclosing that is, indeed, how the IRS has been working. But she claims the IRS has quickly changed and is now ship-shape.

“So I guess my bottom line here,” concluded Lerner, “is that we at the IRS should apologize for that, it was not intentional, and as soon as we found out what was going on, we took steps to make it better and I don’t expect that to reoccur.”

Lerner was also adamant that there was no “political bias” involved. Even though it appears impossible to implement a policy specifically blocking certain groups with “Tea Party” or “Patriot” in their name from being permitted to establish non-profit organizations without a pretty obvious political bias.

Who are you going to believe: your common sense or the IRS?

“The Internal Revenue Service is caught in an election-year struggle,” the New York Times reported back in March of 2012, at the beginning of that crucial election year, “between Democratic lawmakers pressing for a crackdown on nonprofit political groups and conservative organizations accusing the tax agency of conducting a politically charged witch hunt.”

Why were Democratic lawmakers urging the IRS to squeeze conservative groups? The Times’s report noted that Tea Party and conservative non-profit groups were raising more money than the 501(c)4 groups more aligned with Democrats.

Strange, while the IRS discovered at some point last year that its people in Cincinnati were socking it to the very groups that for years had been claiming unfair treatment, the agency did not inform those harmed unfairly by their actions of this important discovery. In fact, Washington Post reporter Karen Tumulty tweeted on Friday afternoon that the “IRS says no apology before today because no one ever asked.”

Is that how apologies work?

Furthermore, a spokesperson for the IRS initially said there had been no disciplinary action taken against any employee involved in the innocent and apolitical targeting of conservative and Tea Party groups, which has been ascribed to “low-level” workers at the Cincinnati, Ohio, office. But in the interest of full transparency and complete contrition, the IRS later “clarified” that the agency simply would not provide any response at all to that question.

The White House has quick to officially join the IRS in issuing a statement of “Oops!” and singing Kumbaya as well as dubbing this flagrant civil rights violation as wholly “inappropriate” . . . as if some agent had spoken out of turn or worn white after Labor Day.

What is implicated here is quite a bit more serious than that. The “insensitivity” of it pales in comparison to the potentially criminal violations of the civil rights of those Americans who just happen to be conservative or, heaven forbid, “patriots,” and active in promoting what they perceive to be the welfare of our society.

Illegally using government power to block the social, religious or political organizing and communications of one’s perceived “opponents” is destructive to popular government, to freedom, to the Constitution.

It is tragic to see it in places like Egypt and China and Syria and Cuba. It is something more painful still to see it plainly in the United States of America.

And it is something that some progressives like to say “only right-wingers do.” Obviously untrue.     [further reading]

Paul Jacob

Paul Jacob is President of Citizens in Charge Foundation and Citizens in Charge. His daily Common Sense commentary appears on the Web and via e-mail.