When the IRS Does It, It’s Not illegal

Published: Jul 14, 2014

Author: Rep. Darrell Issa

Imagine being audited by the Internal Revenue Service: you do not have two years of records because your computer crashed; you could have retrieved many from a backup, but you had decided it was too expensive. Too late for regrets now — you threw away your computer months ago. On top of this, the IRS has actually found emails you sent to associates warning them to be careful what they write in email because the IRS might get their hands on it.

Feel like the IRS is going to let you off easy? You might have better luck if you were an IRS official caught up in a scandal where the political adversaries of the President’s party were systematically segregated from other applicants and subjected to unprecedented scrutiny.

The central IRS figure in the targeting scandal — former Director of Exempt Organizations Lois Lerner — did all of these things. Ironically, her agency, which requires taxpayers to keep records, sees no signs of wrongdoing. The IRS wants America to believe that an effort to single out organizations that had “Tea Party” or other conservative sounding phrases in their names was just a misunderstanding.

“I was cautioning folks about email and how we have several occasions where Congress has asked for emails and there has been an electronic search for responsive emails — so we need to be cautious about what we say in emails,” wrote Lois Lerner, the director of the IRS division where targeting took place. Lerner’s April 2013 message came only 12 days after the IRS received an advance copy of a damning independent report about targeting. Lerner, in previous emails, had written to colleagues that scrutiny of organizations engaging in politics needed to happen but stressed the need, “to be cautious so it isn’t a per se political project.”

Though 28 critical months of emails in Lois Lerner’s account have gone missing, from emails and accounts of her colleagues we have a taste of what she was doing:

  • Lamenting how groups engaging in politics were hurting the Democratic Party’s chance of controlling the Senate
  • Violating legal protections of sensitive taxpayer information by conveying it to the Justice Department without a warrant
  • Directing IRS employees to apply unprecedented scrutiny to Tea Party applications
  • Referring a sitting Republican senator for audit after she accidentally received his invitation to speak at a tax law event

We have a government of laws. The rule of law must guide our bureaucracy down to the last email — and yes, the federal government’s national archivist has testified that the IRS “did not follow the law” in how emails were “lost” amidst Lois Lerner’s computer “crash” in 2011.

No matter where you fall on the political spectrum, the IRS targeting scandal should disturb you. The IRS is not a political tool to be used to the advantage of the party in power. Interactions with the bureaucracy should always be apolitical. Every individual, family, and group deserves equal treatment when it comes to surrendering part of their income and sensitive information to the government.

When Americans are abused by a powerful agency like the IRS — whether by a senior official like Lois Lerner or some other circumstance — one would expect the President of the United States, on whose watch this happened and whose legacy it taints, to be outraged. Instead, President Obama declared that there is not a “smidgeon of corruption.” He may as well have said, “When the IRS does it, that means that it is not illegal.”