"Are you now, or have you ever been, a conservative?"
No, that's not how Internal Revenue Service officials worded it when they demanded reams of detailed information about various right-leaning groups applying for tax-exempt status over the past few years. But they might as well have. As more details emerge about this scandal, the more it sounds like a modern-day witch hunt.
That hunt began shortly after the Supreme Court handed down its decision in the 2010 case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. Unhappy that the highest court in the land had vastly eased restrictions on independent political speech, certain government officials began to give greater scrutiny to groups whose political views were at odds with the current administration.
According to retiring IRS lawyer Carter C. Hull, this was no accident. In testimony before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, he said that such groups were subjected to what House documents call "an uncommon multilayer review" that involved a top adviser to Lois Lerner, the former head of the IRS' tax-exempt division, as well as the chief counsel's office, led by presidential appointee William J. Wilkins.
Who was targeted? Groups with names that included "Tea Party," "patriots" or "9/12" in their names. Groups "worried about government spending, debt or taxes, and even ones that lobbied to 'make America a better place to live,'" The Wall Street Journal said. Another red flag, according to Fox News: doing any "education on the Constitution and Bill of Rights." Scary, subversive documents, those.
What did the IRS want to know about such groups when they applied for tax-exempt status? The "training materials" they were distributing. The political affiliation of any group mentors. The positions they took on a range of issues. The material their members were reading. The content they posted on social-networking websites. Copies of their communications with legislators. The names of any student members, many of whom were minors. And more.
The Coalition for Life of Iowa got this request: "Please explain how all of your activities, including the prayer meetings held outside of Planned Parenthood, are considered educational as defined under 501(c)(3). ... Please explain in detail the activities at these prayer meetings. Also, please provide the percentage of time your group spends on prayer groups as compared with other activities of the organization." At least they said "please."
A Tea Party group in Ohio was hit with 35 detailed questions, such as: "Provide a listing of all your past activities. Indicate the percentage of your time spent conducting the activity (total of all activities should equal 100 percent) and the percentage of your funds spent conducting the activity (total of all activities should equal 100 percent)."
The IRS was essentially playing a waiting game. It's hard for any group formed to advocate a particular point of view to raise money or conduct any normal business while its tax status is in doubt, and that's what these groups faced: an indefinite delay as they coped with burdensome documentation requests.
Understandably, some gave up. Dealing with the IRS "was frightening, and that's why I shut it down," Jennifer Stefano of Pennsylvania told ABC News of her plans to start a Tea Party group.
It wasn't just the IRS. The latest round of emails released by congressional investigators shows that it took Ms. Lerner all of nine minutes to tell agency attorneys to share information the Federal Election Commission requested about one organization.
Singling out any groups for such abuse should concern all Americans, no matter what their political views. The idea that the levers of government can be pulled at will to harass one's ideological opponents is "intolerable and inexcusable," as President Obama initially said of the IRS' actions. "Regardless of how this conduct was allowed to take place, the bottom line is, it was wrong."
He was right, even though he has lately been calling it a "phony" scandal. Congress and the FBI are investigating the matter. Will they expose the whole truth — and in a timely fashion?
Ed Feulner is founder of the Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).
© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.