It turns out the "rogue agents" at the Internal Revenue Service field office in Cincinnati weren't quite so rogue after all. Democrats had hoped some low-level minion at the agency would serve as the fall guy in the expanding snooping scandal. On Thursday, the fingers were pointed squarely at high-level offices in the IRS headquarters in Washington.
The IRS agents in the Cincinnati field office who handled the 501(c)3 applications of Tea Party groups were acting under orders from above. One of them, Elizabeth Hofacre, said she took her orders from Carter Hull, a tax law specialist based in Washington.
Mr. Hull in turn says he did the bidding of Lois Lerner, the top-level agent who asserted her Fifth Amendment right to avoid testifying about what she did. Mr. Hull explained that conservative groups' applications were stalled because he had to send them to the chief counsel's office, where they languished.
President Obama appointed William J. Wilkins as the IRS chief counsel in 2009. He had been a top Democratic Senate committee staffer, so it's not surprising he took his time "reviewing" the applications from conservatives. None were approved. Applications by about a dozen liberal groups got extra scrutiny but were approved.
This scandal goes far beyond sitting on paperwork. As Ben Wolfgang and Dave Boyer reported in The Washington Times, Christine O'Donnell, the 2010 Republican Senate candidate in Delaware, has identified herself as one of four political figures whose tax files were improperly accessed. This became a big issue during her campaign.
On the same day Miss O'Donnell announced her candidacy in 2010, the IRS put an $11,000 lien on a property that was said to be hers, and the news spread quickly. The lien was eventually withdrawn because it was a "mistake," but the damage was done. Miss O'Donnell spent weeks trying to explain her "tax problems" instead of advancing her positive campaign message.
Opposition researchers dream of getting their hands on the highly personal information contained in tax records because they understand the mischief that can be wrought with it. "It's using the IRS as a political weapon, and that shouldn't be done," Miss O'Donnell says.
Democrats on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee want us to believe that these weren't political weapons; it's just a coincidence and a misunderstanding. Ain't nobody here but us chickens.
Having run out of plausible defenses, committee Democrats turned their fire on J. Russell George, the Treasury Department's inspector general for tax administration whose job it is to look into what happened and report to Congress.
Mr. Russell is the opposite of a partisan. His inquiry has been painfully slow, precise and meticulous. That's why it's a sign of total desperation that the committee's ranking member, Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, has been trying to paint the inspector general as a political operative. Mr. Russell was appointed by President Bush (horrors!), but in his youth he was a page at the Democratic National Convention and as a student he founded a club for Democrats at Howard University. "Anyone who has worked with me on either side of the political spectrum will say that I call it like I see it," he says.
Mr. Russell isn't a convincing scapegoat. Congressional Democrats ought to lend a hand in getting to the bottom of what's happening at the IRS, so those responsible for the chicanery can be held to account. Only then can the nation move on.
The Washington Times