Hiltzik's Misbegotten Defense of the IRS

Carol Platt Liebau
Posted: May 26, 2013 7:25 PM

It is appalling that LA Times writer Michael Hiltzik would want to "show[] some love" for the poor IRS, beleaguered by a congressional "witch hunt" -- but perhaps it isn't surprising.  Maybe being repeatedly embroiled in scandals oneself (as Hiltzik has been on several occasions in the past, including this and this) engenders a sense of fellow-feeling with others whose ideological commitment or lack of self-restraint motivate them to behave in unseemly ways.

Even so, sympathies of any sort do not justify duplicity -- a lesson one would think Hiltzik (and IRS, for that matter) should already know.  But instead, here Hiltzik goes again, defending the misunderstood souls at the IRS:

Washington remains wrapped up in its witch-hunting cabaret about whether rank-and-file employees in the agency's Cincinnati outpost selected — excuse me, "targeted" — conservative organizations for special scrutiny of their eligibility for preferential tax treatment simply because of their political leanings.

Thus far, there's no evidence that's what happened. Indeed, the IRS inspector general has found that groups whose names featured "tea party," patriot," or other terms favored by conservatives were a minority of the organizations selected for scrutiny. The IG also reported that most of the groups given special attention were, in fact, suspiciously political and therefore possibly ineligible for the donor anonymity that C4 (c)4 designation confers.

Let's unapck the disingenuous Hiltzik assertion that there's "no evidence" of targeting of "conservative organizations for special scrutiny of their eligibility for preferential tax treatment simply because of their political leanings."  

First: The whole point of the Inspector General report -- the heart of its conclusion -- was that the "[IRS] Determinations Unit developed and used inappropriate criteria to identify applications from organizations . . ." (page 5). Indeed, later, on page 7, it notes that at one point, even some at the IRS recognized how inappropriate the criteria were, and ordered them changed to focus on the potential "political, lobbying, or [general] advocacy" activities of the orgaization -- but that they then were improperly changed back to "focus on the policy positions of organizations instead of tax-exempt laws and Treasury Regulations."

Second: Hiltzik argues that because "groups whose names featured 'tea party,' 'patriot,' or other terms favored by conservatives were a minority of the organizations selected for scrutiny," this means no targeting occurred.  In doing this, he parrots a defense offered in the IG report on page 8, but not one that comes from the IG, as he implies.  Instead, the report states that 

According to the [IRS] Director, Rulings and Agreements, the fact that the team of specialists worked applications that did not involve the Tea Party, Patriots, or 9/12 groups demonstrated tha tthe IRS was not political biased in its identification of applications for processing by the team of specialists.

Notably, the IG (still on page 8) goes on to state that

While the team of specialists reviewed applications from a variety of organizations, we determined during our reviewws . . . that all cases with Tea Party, Patriots, or 9/12 in their names were forwarded to the team of specialists.

In other words, every single application with those terms was targeted -- 100%.  So while the majority of potential political cases (202 of 298) did not have those three terms in their names, all of the 96 that did were delayed and those applicants were harassed.

Third: In arguing that no targeting occurred since the majority of cases scrutinized didn't contain the terms "Tea Party," "Patriots" or 9/12, Hiltzik overlooks Figure 3 on page 6 of the report -- which clearly states that there were other criteria that were used to target conservatives.

Along with "Tea Party," Patriots," or "9/12 Project," criteria listed in Figure 3 for flagging cases included:

Issues include government spending, government debt or taxes

Education of the public by advocacy/lobbyig to "make America a better place to live"

Statement in the case file criticize [sic] how the country is being run.

Fourth: On page 10 of the IG report, the IG notes that "we did not identify any indications of significant campaign intervention for 91 (31 percent) of the 296 applications that had complete documentation [2 did not]." It was not clear why these applicants were singled out for further scrutiny; footnote 28 on that page states that 17% of these applications needlessly delayed involved Tea Party, Patriots or 9/12 organizations -- but significantly, we don't know what the total number were that also contained other items in the complete list of criteria outlined in Figure 3.

Finally: In order to assert that the claims of targeting constitute a "witch hunt," Hiltzik has to ignore the abundant evidence of disparate treatment between liberal groups and conservative ones.  Is he denying stories like this, from USA Today -- titled "IRS approved liberal groups while Tea Party in limbo" -- or is he just ignorant of them? What about this, from the Washington Post: "IRS stalled conservative groups, but gave speedy approval to the Obama Foundation"? Is he aware of any liberal group that was harassed like conservative groups were -- and if he is, could he share that information with the rest of us?

Hiltzik's piece attempting to "show the IRS some love" is a diligent effort at cranky contrarianism, an attempt to spin abusive government behavior into the story of an innocuous, underfunded organization befuddled by complex rules and hounded by evil Republicans.  But anyone who's going to undertake such an uphill task had better have some facts to marshall in defense of his proposition. And no, neither Michael Hiltzik nor anyone else is allowed simply to distort basic realities or simply make them up.

You know, Michael Hiltzik and Lois Lerner both have something in common: It's a miracle both of them still have a job.