A Breach of Trust

Susan Combs

5/20/2013 9:45:00 AM - Susan Combs

As tax collector for the nation’s second-largest state, I know it’s a necessary function — from the fire station to the space station, nothing government does is possible without taxes.

But it’s sure no path to popularity.

Tax collectors have had a rotten reputation since biblical times. For all the services and all the people that depend on it, our work has to be viewed as fair and even-handed. It’s a basic bond of trust, and once that trust is lost, it’s hard to get back. Our entire nation was born when the colonists decided Britain’s taxes were unfair.

That’s why it’s so infuriating to learn that this administration has breached that trust so profoundly, by persecuting groups explicitly for their politics.

Just a few weeks ago, President Obama told Ohio State college students they should reject voices claiming that government is sinister, that tyranny is lurking “just around the corner.” Now it seems that those voices might just be on to something. When you hear the phrase “troubling questions,” you just know someone’s been lying.

As I write this, new revelations are cascading down each day.

Thanks to the IRS Inspector General’s report, here’s what we know: In spring 2010, the IRS began singling out Tea Party groups claiming nonprofit status for “special” treatment. That included excruciatingly detailed questionnaires — intrusive demands for information about members and employees, donor lists; printouts of Facebook posts, websites and tweets; minutes of all board meetings; they even wanted to know what was being read in a group’s book studies.

And even if they got their data dumps, the IRS delayed rulings on nonprofit status for months and even years. In an election season, as it happens.

At this writing, we don’t know who came up with this idea, although the administration initially wanted to blame “low-level employees in Cincinnati,” in a turn of phrase that may join “third-rate burglary” in the scandal hall of fame. It’s false on its face anyway, since we now know at least two other IRS offices were involved.

By June 2011, the targeting had spread to organizations that were critical of government spending, debt or taxes, that criticized “how the country is being run,” and even groups whose stated cause was to “make America a better place to live.” Now there’s a pack of dangerous notions.

In March 2012, then-commissioner of the IRS Douglas Shulman told a hearing of the U.S. House that, “There's absolutely no targeting.” He also said, “we pride ourselves on being a non-political, non-partisan agency.” Not so much, as it turns out. Top IRS officials had known about the targeting since the previous summer. The current acting commissioner, Steven Miller, was briefed on the affair in May 2012, but didn’t reveal it to Congress either.

The IRS tells us that “mistakes were made initially, but they were in no way due to any political or partisan rationale.” Some statements parody themselves. And can you imagine the chaos and consternation that would have broken loose in the press if the IRS targeted organizations with “progressive” or “social justice” in their names?

The regulatory mentality always starts at the top. For example, I take full responsibility for setting the tone here in Texas with our taxes at this agency.

Whether it’s a Nixonian enemies list or a smear on a campaign website, when a president points his finger at an individual, the country is in a very bad way.

Some may remember the case of Frank VanderSloot, an Idaho businessman who made a large donation to Mitt Romney’s campaign in 2011. In April 2012, he was smeared on the Obama campaign website as “less than reputable.” Within a few months, he was being audited by the IRS and the Department of Labor. The audits found nothing, but they cost VanderSloot $80,000 in legal bills and months of time and effort.

Whether intentional or not, government agencies do take their cues from their bosses. It can be special favors — waived costs or prosecutions from the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — or harassment through the misery of the auditing process. But all targeted activities are harmful to democracy. When you’re administering the law, public confidence erodes in the exact proportion to the perceived abuse of your authority.

Talk about government transparency is cheap. But actions speak louder than words. And these actions are pretty frightening if they really reflect national policy. We must rebuild confidence, restore trust, and stop the bad behavior.