Thousands of activists rallied outside the Capitol on Wednesday to protest the IRS targeting of conservative and tea party groups, with many of the event’s speakers laying the blame for the fiasco squarely at the White House.
The “Audit the IRS” rally, organized by the Tea Party Patriots organization in response to the agency’s improper scrutiny of conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status, drew members and leaders of tea party groups across the country, radio personality Glenn Beck and the Senate’s tea party trio: Republicans Rand Paul of Kentucky, Mike Lee of Utah and Ted Cruz of Texas.
“When Richard Nixon tried to use the IRS to target his political enemies, it was wrong,” Mr. Cruz said. “And when the Obama administration does it, it’s still wrong.”
Rep. Tim Huelskamp, Kansas Republican, said the two presidents have become so intertwined in his mind that he thinks of Mr. Obama as “President O’Nixon.”
Ken Hoagland, chairman of Restore America’s Voice PAC, accused former White House counsel Bob Bauer of sending “memo after memo to the Justice Department, to the IRS and other interested parties urging them to go after law-abiding citizens who wanted to end voter fraud [and] exercise their rights to stop an out-of-control government. This abuse of Americans was directed by Washington at the very highest levels of the Obama administration and campaign.”
The sentiment permeated throughout the crowd, peppered with “Don’t Tread on Me” Gadsden flags, Colonial American garb, and one suggestive sign, complete with two round balls, apparently questioning the manliness of House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, who often draws the ire of staunch conservatives.
“I hate what our government is doing right now. I don’t like what they’re doing with the IRS, I don’t like what they’re doing with the [National Security Agency], I don’t like what they’re doing with Homeland Security, and definitely with the Justice Department, any of what’s going on,” said Gladys Torres, a retired retail store worker from Long Island, N.Y.
“I feel like we’re living in Nazi Germany. I believe this administration is using all these agencies against the people they don’t agree with politically. And I think that is totally un-American,” she said.
‘We will get answers’
Even Rep. Dave Camp, a Michigan Republican who has largely stayed out of the partisan fray over the IRS targeting that has engulfed the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, promised the crowd in short remarks that “we will get answers.” Mr. Camp’s Ways and Means Committee is conducting a joint investigation with the oversight committee.
Oversight Chairman Darrell E. Issa, California Republican, and ranking member Elijah E. Cummings, Maryland Democrat, have been waging a back-and-forth battle over transcripts of interviews from witnesses in the investigation.
Excerpts of testimony have revealed involvement of the agency’s Washington office that appears to contradict early IRS claims that the improper scrutiny was confined to a few employees of the Cincinnati office.
“A worker in Cincinnati was quoted as saying we don’t do anything without direction,” said Mr. Camp, who did not mention Mr. Obama or the White House.
But Mr. Cummings, to the consternation of Mr. Issa, released the entire transcript this week of an interview with John Shafer, a Cincinnati employee and self-described “conservative Republican,” who said the issue for him began when an employee in Cincinnati, not Washington, flagged an application that appeared like it could be a “high-profile” case, so Mr. Shafer forwarded it.
Mr. Shafer said his team was not influenced by political motivations and that he had no reason to believe the White House was involved at all.
Mr. Cummings acknowledged in a letter to Mr. Issa this week that IRS employees in Washington were involved. An inspector general’s report said Lois Lerner, director of tax-exempt organizations at the agency, put a halt to some of the terms being used to single out organizations two years ago, and a “Be on The Lookout” list was subsequently revised in July 2011.
“These facts are a far cry from accusations of a conspiracy orchestrated by the White House to target the President’s political enemies,” Mr. Cummings wrote. “At this point in the investigation, not one witness who has appeared before the Committee has identified any involvement by any White House officials in the identification or screening of Tea Party applicants for tax exempt status, and the Committee has obtained no documents indicating any such involvement.”
After 459 days
But that investigation, in addition to a Justice Department probe, is still ongoing. The actions of the IRS have created heartburn for Becky Gerritson, founder and president of the Wetumpka Tea Party in Alabama.
The group was launched in April 2009 and applied for 501(c)4 nonprofit status in October 2010.
“Our check was cashed 7 days later. We got a letter saying they received our information and we should wait about 90 days to hear something,” Ms. Gerritson said. “We did not hear anything back for 459 days. That’s when I received a letter from the IRS asking for approximately 90 pieces of additional information for our group.”
She said that after having the American Center for Law and Justice look at the case, they retained counsel and were granted tax-exempt status last July.
“It felt like they were trying to shut us down,” she said. “And, at the time, we didn’t know how many people had been targeted, but I did know there were at least 30 groups, so it was pretty obvious something was going on. Of course that number has grown to about 10 times as much as that.”
In another potentially embarrassing episode for the beleaguered agency, Sen. Chuck Grassley, Iowa Republican, is claiming that the IRS was poised to flout an April directive from the White House Office of Management and Budget that “discretionary monetary awards” should not be issued while sequestration cuts were in place, unless legally required.
The directive was written by acting IRS Commissioner Danny Werfel, who was then working at OMB. Mr. Grassley wrote that the IRS intended to execute an agreement Wednesday with the National Treasury Employees Union preserving about $70 million in worker bonuses.
“While the IRS may claim that these bonuses are legally required under the original bargaining unit agreement, that claim would allegedly be inaccurate,” Mr. Grassley wrote. “In fact, the original agreement allows for the re-appropriation of such award funding in the event of budgetary shortfall.”
An IRS spokeswoman told The Associated Press that the agency was “actively engaged” with NTEU on the matter.
As for the rally, Mike Vontz, a 55-year-old handyman from the St. Louis area, said he was a little disappointed that the crowd wasn’t as big as one at a “9/12” rally, but it’s hard “to keep coming to Washington, D.C., to tell the politicians ‘we don’t want you shoving your laws down our throats.’”
“And especially when it turns out that it rarely matters what we seem to think,” he said. “But at the same time, you know, all the people here came here to make a physical statement that we care about what our lives are [done to] and we want our own freedom to do what we want.”
• David Sherfinski can be reached at email@example.com.
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