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EDITORIAL: A summer of long, hot scandal

The IRS disease spreads to other agencies

- - Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The targeting of conservatives by the Internal Revenue Service is old news. We have that on the word of the Internal Revenue Service, for whatever the word of the IRS is worth. A new acting commissioner has been put in place to clean up the "isolated incidents" that are the work of a mere handful of "rogue," low-level employees in faraway regional offices. So much "due diligence" was applied to tax-exempt status applications of Tea Party groups that none were ever approved.

This must be more coincidence. President Obama himself insists this is a "phony scandal," one of several continuing this summer. But if this is so, asks Rep. Dave Camp of Michigan, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, why hasn't Mr. Obama stopped the targeting? He could do it with a 10-second telephone call. But that's only if he wanted to. Mr. Camp released the transcript of an interview with a current IRS employee in the Cincinnati office, who said, "based on my manager's current direction," he would send any conservative group's application to the bottomless pit known as "extra screening." Applications have been buried there since 2010.

Procedures at the IRS not only haven't changed, it appears that the IRS disease has spread to other government agencies. Congressional investigators released documents that show the Federal Election Commission (FEC) complicit in targeting conservative organizations, too. A set of emails show that when the FEC lawyers wanted to make trouble for conservative groups, they turned to Lois Lerner, the senior IRS official at the heart of the scandal, for instructions and advice.

Ms. Lerner was a lawyer for the FEC in 1990 when she led the charge against the Christian Coalition. The commission harassed the Christian Coalition for nearly a decade, until the charges were thrown out by a federal judge.

Like the IRS, the FEC is supposed to be apolitical. Established in response to the Watergate scandal, the FEC was meant to be a neutral watchdog over political contributions, eliminating corruption. The commission has instead become the government's speech police, laying minefields for ordinary citizens who might run an ad criticizing a politician, and eager to make a federal case out of one innocent verbal misstep.

The full extent of connivance between the IRS and FEC won't be known soon, if ever, given the government's talent for obfuscation. But a simple solution is readily available. The commission could adopt written, objective criteria to guide the agencies. Donald F. McGahn, the vice chairman of the FEC, has complained for years that the commission's work has been "conducted in secret, on an ad hoc basis." Due process was a foreign concept to the agency, "and the idea of ensuring that those accused of wrongdoing had a meaningful opportunity to be heard by the commission was anathema to many."

If the commission had adopted the enforcement manual that Mr. McGahn proposes, the FEC wouldn't be among the usual suspects now. The FEC would have been required to obey the law, foreign concept or not, which states clearly that the agency cannot open an investigation, or refer anything to other agencies without approval of the bipartisan commission. Congressional investigators found that FEC lawyers and other employees called Ms. Lerner on their own imagined authority. Ellen L. Weintraub, the Democratic chairman of the agency, won't even discuss reforms. The scandals reveal a presidential administration adrift in a sea of spreading shame. That's a dangerous place for an administration to be.

The Washington Times