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KUHNER: An enormous abuse of IRS power

If he’s complicit, a big if, Obama’s offense would rival Nixon’s

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Did President Obama know about his administration's enemies list? If he did — and it looks like he may have — then his presidency is in deep trouble. The burgeoning scandal involving the Internal Revenue Service may do to him what Watergate did to Richard M. Nixon.

IRS agents deliberately targeted numerous conservative and Tea Party groups applying for tax-exempt status. Their goal: to prevent Mr. Obama's opposition from being able to organize and raise money — especially during the closely contested 2012 election cycle. The IRS was transformed into a partisan arm of the administration in order to persecute Mr. Obama's critics. This was not only unethical, but also unconstitutional and illegal. The IRS engaged in massive, systemic abuse of power.

Applicants were asked to disclose Facebook posts, Twitter messages, books they have read, names of confidential donors and volunteers, friends who shared their political views, the texts of past and potential speeches, and for some even the contents of their prayers. This was an assault on individual liberties and religious freedoms. The IRS was behaving like the secret police of a socialist autocracy, snooping on its own citizens.

Take the case of Catherine Engelbrecht. She is the president of True the Vote, a group devoted to combating voter fraud. Mrs. Engelbrecht says she has faced government harassment for years. She said the FBI visited her several times, inquiring whether she knew if any "terrorists" were part of her group. She underwent five rounds of IRS questioning — and still hasn't received approval. Moreover, Mrs. Engelbrecht and her husband were audited multiple times by federal agencies. The Environmental Protection Agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives — all of them conducted separate audits on Mrs. Engelbrecht or her husband's business. The IRS sharing of confidential tax information with other federal agencies is a serious crime. It is highly likely that Mrs. Engelbrecht was targeted for one reason: her Tea Party beliefs. It appears she was being punished — financially and emotionally — for the crime of criticizing Mr. Obama.

Individuals opposed to the president were systematically persecuted. Businessmen and donors to Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, such as Frank VanderSloot, were audited. Mr. VanderSloot's Idaho cattle farm was fined more than $80,000. A conservative Catholic university professor, who wrote articles critical of the administration's policies, was frivolously audited. Conservative pundits and journalists — including some at Fox News — were targeted. The list goes on.

At its core, the IRS scandal is about the subversion of our democracy. It is more than big government run amok (as some Republicans claim). It is the embryonic creation of a liberal fascist regime. The Obama administration is erecting a thug state, transforming the IRS — and other federal agencies — into a political weapon to bludgeon opponents. This is the kind of behavior common in Venezuela, Cuba and Russia.

The administration is desperately trying to limit the political damage. It is engaged in stonewalling and a cover-up. Lois Lerner, who oversaw the IRS tax-exempt division, has invoked her right against self-incrimination. Former IRS Commissioner Douglas H. Shulman claims he knew nothing about the targeting. Former acting Commissioner Steven Miller says the same thing. Call it the blind leading the blind.

There is only one problem: Senior IRS officials knew about the president's enemies list. The Treasury Department inspector general's report explicitly states that top IRS officials discussed the agency's deliberate targeting of conservative groups as early as the spring of 2011. Moreover, the IRS completed its own internal investigation six months before the 2012 election. In other words, IRS senior brass were not only aware of the agency's rampant abuses, but they also deliberately kept them hidden from the public. The reason is obvious: The scandal would have jeopardized Mr. Obama's re-election chances. Media reports now show that senior administration officials — the president's chief of staff, his legal counsel, the deputy Treasury secretary and many in the White House staff — also knew about the problems plaguing the IRS months before the scandal broke. The White House knew, and at a minimum, did nothing while the rights of American citizens were violated.

The key question is: What did Mr. Obama know and when did he know it? Jeffrey Lord, writing in The American Spectator, has produced some damning — and potentially devastating — evidence. It may be the proverbial smoking gun that ties the president to the IRS scandal. According to Mr. Lord, White House visitor logs reveal that Mr. Obama met privately on March 31, 2010, with Colleen Kelley, the head of the National Treasury Employees Union. The organization is a public union representing more than 150,000 federal government members, including IRS employees. The union is known as being staunchly pro-Obama, providing vast campaign contributions to anti-Tea Party candidates. As Mr. Lord points out, Ms. Kelley has said repeatedly that her aim is to forge a "partnership" and "collaborate" with the president. She is an administration hack. The day after the meeting, the IRS began to compile the enemies list and launch its targeting campaign.

The trail of evidence leads directly to the White House — and, more ominously, to Mr. Obama. Congressional investigators must subpoena Ms. Kelley and ask her questions under oath — upon the penalty of imprisonment. Did Mr. Obama order, direct or guide her, and by extension, IRS agents to go after conservatives? What was the nature and content of their discussion?

Mr. Obama's presidency hinges on those answers. If he did direct her — and I stress if — then he will be directly implicated in a campaign aimed at assaulting the very pillars of our democracy. Rather than being the liberal messiah, he will be the Democrats' Nixon.

Jeffrey T. Kuhner is a radio commentator on WRKO AM-680 in Boston.

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