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Doubling down

"Doubling down" Continued...

Issue: "Inside the wire," March 22, 2014

The regulations may be aimed at eliminating stealth election money, but caught in the crosshairs are people like Dianne Belsom, leader of the Laurens County Tea Party in South Carolina. Her group—which has been waiting since July 22, 2010, for IRS approval—averages about 40 to 50 attendees at its monthly meetings, and it only brings in about $2,000 a year from member dues and random donations. She said her tax liability would be negligible, but, “It’s the principle of the thing. In a sense we have a club made up of people who pay small membership fees—money they’ve already paid taxes on.”

Sekulow: Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly/Newscom
Conservative groups also say disclosing donors would hurt them because of past targeting and the threat of more targeting in the future. After Kevin Kookogey, an entertainment lawyer by trade, provided public testimony at a congressional hearing last June, his largest client, accounting for about 75 percent of his income, dropped him over the controversy. Kookogey said more than one friend asked him to stop sending email updates about the IRS saga, because they didn’t want the government to know they were associated with him. “People have every reason to be concerned and afraid of their government,” Kookogey said, citing disclosure of the National Security Agency (NSA) domestic spying program as more evidence of government overreach.

For Richmond, Texas, resident Catherine Engelbrecht, targeting meant much more than intrusive questions: At a hearing in February, Engelbrecht told lawmakers she and her husband had lived quiet lives as small-business owners for nearly 20 years, experiencing no investigations or audits during that time. Then in 2010, she applied for 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) nonprofit status for her respective civic organizations, True the Vote and King Street Patriots. Since then, the IRS has audited her and her business twice each, part of 15 inquiries from the tax agency, the FBI, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives. Taken as a whole, Engelbrecht told me, “you can’t make any other rational conclusion except that something is coordinated.”

Democrats at the hearing pushed back against Engelbrecht’s conclusion, saying she has no evidence the investigations were connected and suggesting a manufacturing company warrants an unannounced OSHA inspection. Engelbrecht’s attorney, Cleta Mitchell, who represents a dozen targeted groups, said she filed Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to see what triggered the visits, and she got nothing in return. Sekulow, who represents Linchpins of Liberty and 40 other conservative organizations, told me his team has learned Lois Lerner was sharing information with other government agencies, and she was sending documents to her private email account: “Who knows where they went from there.”

The revelation that Barbara Bosserman, the lead DOJ investigator of IRS abuses, donated $6,750 to Obama campaigns and the Democratic National Committee didn’t build faith in the process. Republicans called for her removal from the investigation, but the Justice Department in a statement said it is “contrary to department policy” and federal law to consider the political affiliation of career employees when making personnel decisions. 

Democrats continue to stress that the investigation is ongoing, but their leader has already passed judgment: During a Super Bowl Sunday interview, Obama told Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly there was “not even a smidgen of corruption” at the IRS. Following Engelbrecht’s testimony, which came days after the president’s statement, Rep. Matt Cartwright, D-Pa., said he remains “deeply troubled” over the alleged targeting and admitted “it’s fair to criticize” Obama’s early judgment. A Fox News poll released Feb. 13 found 64 percent of Americans—including 51 percent of Democrats—think the targeting is an example of corruption at the IRS, and 71 percent want Congress to continue investigating.

Sekulow told lawmakers he believes the Justice Department is no longer “institutionally capable” of properly investigating the targeting and said the only solution is to appoint a special prosecutor. Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., a former prosecutor, agreed, noting 13 DOJ employees in six months have not had time to interview a single one of Sekulow’s 41 clients, yet “the president of the United States has already prejudged the outcome of this investigation.”

House and Senate Republicans, who insist the agency can’t propose a solution without knowing the full extent of the problem, have introduced legislation to delay implementation of the new 501(c)(4) regulations until the investigation is complete. The House measure passed out of the Ways and Means Committee Feb. 11 on a party-line vote. Republicans in House and Senate leadership also sent a February letter to new IRS Commissioner John Koskinen urging him to abandon the changes, saying although he inherited the proposal when he joined the agency, he’s now responsible for the outcome. 

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