Who’s Behind IRS Targeting? Don’t Ask NPR

As I’ve mentioned before, “All the President’s Men” is one of my all-time favorite movies, depicting the heroic efforts of two cub reporters relentlessly pursuing a story of little interest to others until their efforts eventually resulted in bringing down the entire Nixon administration.

When it was discovered in the course of the Congressional investigations into Watergate that Nixon had taped Oval Office conversations, a key “smoking gun” was the discovery of an 18 ½ minute “gap” in a conversation between Nixon and his chief of staff Haldeman about Watergate. Nixon’s secretary claimed she had accidentally erased the tape during its transcription—a claim found so ludicrous that the “18 1/2 minute gap” became short-hand for any ridiculous assertion, e.g., “The dog ate my homework.”

Nixon had engaged in all kinds of “dirty tricks” against political “enemies,” and among the articles of impeachment was the charge that Nixon “endeavored to obtain from the Internal Revenue Service, in violation of the constitutional rights of citizens, confidential information contained in income tax returns for purposes not authorized by law, and to cause, in violation of the constitutional rights of citizens, income tax audits or other income tax investigation to be initiated or conducted in a discriminatory manner.”

This IRS has since tried mightily (with spotted success) to establish a reputation for being above politics, and the current investigation into the IRS’s admitted targeting of conservative groups under the Obama administration thus rightly warrants a closer look.

For those who haven’t been following the investigation, as a recap:

As a result of complaints from several conservative groups whose applications for tax exempt status had been materially delayed in advance of the 2010 elections, in 2013, the IRS admitted that it had selected political groups applying for tax-exempt status for closer scrutiny based on their names or political themes (“Tea Party,” “Patriots,” etc., including those whose applications showed an intent to advocate education about the Constitution and the Bill of Rights).

Further, the agency was targeting individuals who were contributors to targeted groups:

At the same time the Internal Revenue Service was targeting tea-party groups, the tax agency took the unusual step of trying to impose gift taxes on donors to a prominent conservative advocacy group formed in 2007 to build support for President George W. Bush’s Iraq troop surge.

Initially, the IRS claimed the delays and scrutiny had been originated and carried out by rogue agents in its Cincinnati office. Declining to be fall guys for their higher-ups, the Cincinnati agents revealed their instructions as coming from Washington, DC. Lois Lerner, the head of the IRS Exempt Organizations Unit in the period in question through May of 2013, when she was placed on administrative leave, invoked the Fifth Amendment when asked to testify on the matter.

The question, of course, remains: Where did the orders to target such groups and individuals originate? Surely, Lois Lerner, in her IRS position since 2006, did not on her own decide one day that she wanted them stymied.

The million dollar question, as with Watergate, is: Who’s behind the targeting?

In an attempt to find the answer, investigators sought Ms. Lerner’s email records.

It has only now come out that all of her emails from January 2009 to April 2011 are missing, supposedly the victim of her hard drive’s crashing. Further, there are no back-ups, and her crashed hard drive is unavailable to computer forensic investigators because it was itself destroyed in 2011.

Due to the supposed crash, [the IRS] said, the agency has only Lerner’s emails to and from other IRS staff during this time. The IRS says it can’t produce emails “written only to or from Lerner and outside agencies or groups, such as the White House, Treasury, Department of Justice, FEC, or Democrat offices.”

As the New York Times reported:

Complicating matters, investigators discovered last week that the hard drives of six additional agency officials had also crashed, including that of Nikole Flax, a former chief of staff to an I.R.S. deputy commissioner. [emphasis added]

That’s a lot of high-level crashes. One would think with problems so endemic, the IRS would have a better recovery system in place.

All in all, certainly question-worthy.

I was therefore extremely surprised to hear the NPR version of the story on the radio last Friday, the day that IRS commissioner John Koskinen appeared before the House Ways and Means Committee to answer questions about the matter.

From NPR’s coverage of the hearing, one would conclude there are no missing emails, and the entire investigation is just another Republican witch hunt:

Here’s Peter Overby of NPR News in Washington’s report, as aired on Friday’s “All Things Considered:”

First a bit of computer history: Lois Lerner’s hard drive crashed, and was recycled in 2011. Agency experts tried to rescue it, but couldn’t.

Overby’s report continues with a summary of Koskinen’s appearance before the House investigation committee on Friday:

Koskinen painted a bright picture of cooperation. He said the agency has delivered 770,000 pages of documents. He said it’s produced 67,000 emails of Lerner’s…

Koskinen: “Not a single email has been lost since the start of this investigation.”

—Yes, the investigation started in 2013. No mention in the story that the emails produced do not include those investigators are seeking from the 15 month period (2009-2011) in question.

And, finally, the entirety of NPR’s coverage of Paul Ryan’s questioning of Koskinan:

I don’t believe you. This is incredible…. Being forthcoming is to say … [Ryan repeatedly interrupted by Democrats] I control the time … [more interruptions] I am not yielding time, I control the time …

—In sum, painting a word portrait of purely partisan bickering.

In contrast, here is a more complete transcript of the exchange:

Ryan: I am sitting here listening to this testimony…. I don’t believe it. That’s your problem. Nobody believes you. The Internal Revenue Service comes to Congress a couple of years ago and misleads us and says no targeting is occurring.

Then it said it was a few rogue agencies in Cincinnati. Then it said it was also on progressives. All those things have been proven untrue. This committee sent a criminal referral of possible criminal wrongdoing, just a month ago, to the Justice Department and we’ve heard nothing. You bury, in a 27-page letter to the Senate, asking for them to conclude the investigation, that you’ve lost Lois Lerner’s emails during the time in question because of a hard drive crash. . . . Monday our investigators asked your agency whether any other hard drives crashed and we learn that six other hard drives of the people we are investigating were involved…. you didn’t tell us that!

Koskinen: We told you on Monday.

. . .

Ryan: You told us on Monday because we asked you whether any other hard drives crashed. This is unbelievable. You told us in May that you were going to give us all of Lois Lerner’s emails and you learned in February that this crashed.

Koskinen: I did not learn in February of the crash and we told you on Monday.

Ryan: I’m not asking a question, I’m making a statement.

Koskinen: I’m sorry.

Ryan: You are the IRS…. You learned about this months ago, you just told us, and we had to ask you on Monday. This is not being forthcoming. This is being misleading again. This is a pattern of abuse, a pattern of behavior, that is not giving us any confidence that this agency is being impartial. I don’t believe you.

Imagine where the Watergate investigation would have gone if left to coverage like NPR’s.

So the next time you rely on NPR for your information, remember that its name is National Public Radio for a reason.


Here’s NPR’s own recording:

Mary L. G. Theroux is Senior Vice President of the Independent Institute. Having received her A.B. in economics from Stanford University, she is Managing Director of Lightning Ventures, L.P., a San Francisco Bay Area investment firm, former Chairman of the Board of Advisors for the Salvation Army of both San Francisco and Alameda County, and Vice President of the C.S. Lewis Society of California.
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