The IRS simultaneously apologized on a Friday (to minimize media scrutiny) and denied it had done anything wrong, or done anything wrong for political reasons, or done anything wrong at a high level of the organization.

Specifically, the head of the tax-exempt division, Lois Lerner, apologized for the way the agency unfairly singled out groups with “tea party” or “patriot” in their names when considering their applications for tax-exempt status.

At an American Bar Association conference today, she said this singling-out of conservative groups was “absolutely incorrect, it was insensitive, and it was inappropriate. That’s not how we go about selecting cases for further review”—except, of course, that it is how the agency went about selecting about 75 cases for review in the last election cycle.

Lerner would not say if any disciplinary actions would be taken against the nameless lower-level officials whom she blamed for the absolutely incorrect acts. She claimed not to know if her superiors at the Treasury Department or the White House knew about any of this incorrectness. She even claimed not to know if anyone above her was aware she would make an extremely newsworthy confession today. (As a former White House staffer, I find that especially hilarious.)

She would not say when she learned about the absolutely incorrect acts, but she did claim that her IRS colleagues were unaware of the problem when they swore to Congress last year that no such incorrect acts were occurring. IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman, asked in March 2012 to respond to conservative groups' reports of harassment, made an emphatic denial in testimony before Congress:

There’s absolutely no targeting.

The individual groups that were in fact targeted have received no apologies. If you wonder what kind of harassment they suffered, consider the example of the Kentucky 9/12 Project, as reported by USA Today:

Executive director, Eric Wilson, said his group applied for tax-exempt status in December 2010. He said the IRS responded with an 88-page questionnaire that sought all the organization's correspondence, the names of its members—along with details of [the] group’s activity on Facebook and Twitter.

Some groups, Lerner admitted, were ordered to turn over their lists of donors, a practice which she said “is not generally what we do.”

Several different Members of Congress quickly announced they will hold hearings on this “thuggish” behavior. We hope one of them will ask whether the same 88-page questionnaire, or any questions at all, were presented to Organizing for America—a 501(c)(4) which the left-of-center Politico calls “the relaunch of [Obama’s] remaining campaign apparatus as a new tax-exempt group”—or its ally Enroll America. These groups’ origins and collusion, as described by Politico, must surely have prompted IRS interest, right?

Several former White House staffers have found a new way to promote Obamacare: They’re spending millions of dollars in secret corporate and union cash, and they’re harnessing grass-roots tactics to some of the biggest names in the health care industry. Organizing for Action, the successor to President Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, and Enroll America, a group led by two former Obama staffers that features several insurance company bigwigs on its board, are planning to unleash the same grass-roots mobilization and sophisticated micro-targeting tactics seen in the 2012 campaign.

Meanwhile, let’s second the American Civil Liberties Union’s condemnation of the IRS’s behavior:

Even the appearance of playing partisan politics with the tax code is about as constitutionally troubling as it gets. With the recent push to grant federal agencies broad new powers to mandate donor disclosure for advocacy groups on both the left and the right, there must be clear checks in place to prevent this from ever happening again.

UPDATE 1: As of Saturday, the IRS continued to make the incredible claim that the agency’s top officials had no knowledge of the targeting of conservative groups. But the Washington Post reports that an inspector general’s report due for release this coming week shows Lois Lerner

knew that agents were targeting conservative groups for special scrutiny as early as 2011, nine months before the IRS  commissioner assured Congress the targeting was not happening.

So please try to believe that the head of the IRS exempt division never bothered to tell the Commissioner the targeting had happened, even though he was to testify to Congress on the subject. Of course, the timing of Lerner’s confession is now completely clear: the administration wanted to get ahead of the inspector general’s report that will appear.

UPDATE 2: The Washington Post editorial page has joined the ACLU in scorching condemnation of the IRS’s misdeeds. The morning after Lerner’s admissions, the Post in its lead editorial declared:

A bedrock principle of U.S. democracy is that the coercive powers of government are never used for partisan purpose. The law is blind to political viewpoint, and so are its enforcers, most especially the FBI and the Internal Revenue Service. Any violation of this principle threatens the trust and the voluntary cooperation of citizens upon which this democracy depends.

So it was appalling to learn Friday that the IRS had improperly targeted conservative groups for scrutiny.

It was almost as disturbing that President Obama and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew have not personally apologized to the American people and promised a full investigation.

… The IRS insisted emphatically that partisanship had nothing to do with it. However, it seems that groups with “progressive” in their titles did not receive the same scrutiny.

The agency said that it now has rules in place to make sure this sort of thing never happens again. How could such basic safeguards not have existed in the first place? And what are the new rules? In response to our questions, officials did not say.

Thankfully, it’s a safe bet that the decision on whether to answer such questions won’t rest solely with the agency for much longer.

UPDATE 3: Historian Martin Morse Wooster reminds me that best source for the history of IRS abuses is David Burnham’s A Law unto Itself: Power, Politics and the IRS. Burnham is a liberal ex-New York Times reporter who married a liberal Washington Post reporter and had his four years of research on the book underwritten by liberal donors like the J. Roderick MacArthur Foundation while he kept personal offices at left-of-center groups like the ACLU and the Advocacy Institute. Burnham covers Nixon’s well-known IRS abuse, but he’s clear that FDR was Nixon’s equal (at least; and Eleanor got involved, too), and that LBJ and JFK also committed serious abuses. In fact, a senior JFK staffer and Bobby Kennedy raced to look at the IRS files of their “enemies” the day after taking over the White House. Burnham also explains that the sprawling IRS bureaucracy is inherently prone to errors and abuses at its lower levels and suggests that simplifying tax laws would significantly help. He criticizes the major media’s failure to cover the IRS (and other big bureaucracies) and also Congress’s unwillingness to conduct proper oversight, explaining that Members don’t want to endanger the money coming in, which they use “to vote for all the good things that our constituents want.” Read the book, or for a CliffsNotes version, read Brian Lamb’s interview with the author. There Burnham suggests that one reform would be to strip the IRS of the authority to grant tax exemptions: “Why should this police agency run the charity business?” He adds, “the IRS is the single most powerful instrument of social control in the United States.” There is “no institution in our country that has so much power and so much impact on all of us. And this agency, I think more than most, is inbred.” 

UPDATE 4: I urged scrutiny of Organizing for America and Enroll America, two 501(c)(4) groups with extremely close ties to the Obama administration and its efforts to "sell" Obamacare to the public. Now the Washington Post reports on unseemly, if not illegal, efforts by HHS Secretary Sebelius to put pressure on business to make contributions to these and allied groups:

Sebelius has gone, hat in hand, to health industry officials, asking them to make large financial donations to help with the effort to implement President Obama’s landmark health-care law.

... Many of Sebelius’s calls have gone to current supporters of Enroll America, the most prominent nonprofit group working on the health care law’s implementation, an HHS official said.

UPDATE 5: At National Review Online, more very helpful posts. First, David French, who represents 27 targeted groups in 18 states, quotes some of the intrusive questions they were asked by IRS officials and notes that, contrary to Lerner's claims that this affair only involved a few rogue grunts in Cincinnati, the targeted groups "had voluminous communications with IRS offices" in DC and California, too. He argues that the questions were "designed not just to create a paperwork burden for tea-party groups but also to dissect their operations and to chill even the activities of family members," and he adds that "Obamacare expands IRS power. Chilling." Second, Kevin Williamson reports that Jewish groups were harassed by the same IRS division, and he reminds us that the second article of Nixon's impeachment was his having caused, "in violation of the constitutional rights of citizens, income tax audits or other income tax investigations to be initiated or conducted in a discriminatory manner.”

UPDATE 6: The Washington Post, after seeing part of the Inspector's General report, says that on Jan. 15, 2012, the IRS "decided to target 'political action type organizations involved in limiting/expanding Government, educating on the Constitution and Bill of Rights, social economic reform movement.'” Who knew that educating on the Constitution and the Bill of Rights is a violation of the legal requirement to operate "for the promotion of social welfare"?

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