Auditing the Watchdog
4/18/2002 12:00:00 AM - Robert Novak
When Bill Clinton left office, conservative gadfly Larry Klayman was locked in combat over Internal Revenue Service (IRS) audits of the Clinton administration's enemies -- including Klayman's Judicial Watch organization. Surprisingly, nothing has changed during 15 months of Republican rule, according to court papers just made public.
The unsealed documents reveal that the IRS is still pressing Judicial Watch for truckloads of records and that the Justice Department has rejected Klayman's bid for a criminal investigation into alleged past misuse of the government's taxing arm. In rhetoric once reserved for the Clintons, Judicial Watch's pleading refers to its "retaliatory, politically-motivated, and unconstitutional audit." In a letter to Attorney General John Ashcroft also made public, Klayman wrote he "would have expected this from the Clinton Administration."
Klayman is no more popular today in the government's upper reaches than he was before Jan. 20, 2001. He is viewed by the Justice Department as the most difficult of the parties suing to force release of information about Vice President Dick Cheney's energy task force. ("I don't know what we are going to do with this Klayman," a government lawyer told me.)
More than an obnoxious, litigious lawyer is at stake. The Bush team is turning a blind eye to possible use of the IRS for political purposes, remembered as one of Richard M. Nixon's most wretched sins. There were no secret tapes in Clinton's White House, as there were in Nixon's, to prove IRS misuse. Nevertheless, a string of circumstantial evidence indicates trouble with the Clintons often was followed by a visit with the tax man.
Nine days after the inauguration of George W. Bush, Judicial Watch formally asked for a "criminal investigation" of the IRS. Klayman wanted to meet with the new attorney general, but he had no more luck seeing Ashcroft than he would have had with Janet Reno. He was referred to Michael Chertoff, assistant attorney general heading the Criminal Division, but complained in his March 9 letter to Ashcroft that he had heard nothing.
On March 13, in a newly released document, Chertoff wrote Klayman that "after careful consideration, we have determined that a criminal investigation of this matter is not warranted." He passed the complaint to Justice's Office of Professional Responsibility to check on charges of misconduct against the department, but on April 1 it reported to Klayman no basis for an investigation.
The Justice Department's stonewall fortifies considerations of privacy and lack of congressional interest in protecting the IRS from scrutiny. The IRS never has explained its intrusion during the Clinton administration's first year when the new president reshaped the White House travel office. Two days after White House sources suggested kickbacks were paid to travel office functionaries from charter airlines, a charter used by the White House -- Ultrair of Nashville, Tenn. -- was visited by IRS agents for an unannounced audit.
In 1996, the conservative (and anti-Clinton) Western Journalism Center (WJC) in Los Angeles was hit by an IRS audit from which it never fully recovered. Judicial Watch filed a complaint in behalf of the WJC on May 13, 1998, and the IRS audit of Klayman's organization was launched Oct. 9, 1998.
Also swiftly visited with audits were Clinton accusers Juanita Broaddrick, Paula Jones and Gennifer Flowers, former travel office chief Billy Dale and even Katherine Prudhomme, who once bothered Vice President Al Gore by asking about Broaddrick -- plus assorted conservative organizations.
Burdensome demands for records covering its full seven-year history and for the political affiliations of its donors put Judicial Watch in a special class. Its lawsuit names as a defendant M. Peter Breslan, an IRS agent quoted in the court papers as asking Judicial Watch: "What do you expect when you sue the President?"
To all this, an IRS spokesman responded to me that audits are derived from "tax returns, based on how they score." Larry Klayman is a prickly troublemaker uncongenial to party and ideological establishments. But it is not necessary to love him to worry about misuse of the IRS. Congress has not managed to conduct a real investigation of this serious problem for democracy, and now the Ashcroft Justice Department is begging off as well.