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A year ago this month, I broke the story of the Internal Revenue Service’s striking pattern of auditing individuals and organizations politically troublesome to the Clinton administration. The article, published in the Wall Street Journal, revealed the way my own organization, the Western Journalism Center, was harassed and abused by the agency and listed some of the other groups targeted.

I knew it was a big story the day it hit. But, only a year later, after several congressional investigations, the resignation of IRS Commissioner Margaret Milner Richardson, the closing of the case against the center, a “60 Minutes” expose and a media and political pile-on against the agency, is it becoming clear just how big it was. It could well represent the first nail in the coffin of the IRS.

A year ago, the Heritage Foundation, National Rifle Association, Concerned Women of America and Oliver North’s organization were all still fighting their own individual battles with the IRS. Not one of those groups would confirm for me, on the record, that they were even being audited. Nonetheless, I was able to corroborate that they were and that other conservative organizations, such as Christian Coalition and the American Family Association were having their own difficulties.

I also pointed out that, nearly two years earlier, my center was the only news organization targeted in a White House Counsel’s Office memo on how to deal with administration scandals. I explained that the IRS seemed less concerned with our bookkeeping procedures and fund-raising techniques than with the focus of our investigative reporting work. I also related the experience of one of our major donors who was told by then-Cabinet Secretary Hazel O’Leary, now under investigation herself, that if he gave any more money to the Western Journalism Center his federal contracts would be in jeopardy.

Only a month later, the White House’s long-time preoccupation with the center became even clearer with the disclosure, again by the Journal, of the administration’s 331-page “Communication Stream of Conspiracy Commerce” report, which placed my group at the beginning of what it called a “media food chain” that nourished scandal stories beginning to appear in the establishment press. The report, regarded widely throughout the media as “Clinton’s enemies list,” contained a five-page biography of me — the only journalist in the country so targeted

In January, I announced that the center would turn the tables on the IRS — that we would begin investigating them. We began reporting taxpayer horror stories. Five months later, the IRS closed the books on our case and opened an internal investigation of its own field agent.

By February, Richardson was calling it quits. By March, the Joint Committee on Taxation was announcing an investigation into the “political audits.”

I always believed that our case represented a “smoking gun” connecting the White House with the use and abuse of the IRS. I was told as much by congressional staffers investigating the matter, as well.

But Congress, as it so often does, dropped the ball. No testimony was ever taken by the joint committee. No witnesses were ever deposed. No documents were ever subpoenaed. In other words, the White House was let off the hook.

Had Ronald Reagan or Richard Nixon been in the White House, impeachment proceedings would be over by now. After all, using the IRS as a political attack dog is one of the ultimate forms of presidential abuse of power. Even Nixon never succeeded at it — though he tried.

Look at what has happened since Congress fumbled in its oversight responsibility:

We now know of at least 20 non-profit organizations unfriendly to the Clinton administration that have been victims of IRS scrutiny.

Former White House travel director Billy Dale was audited shortly after being fired at the urging of Hillary Clinton.

Patricia Mendoza was audited within a month of yelling, “You suck!” at Clinton during a campaign stop in 1996.

Kent Masterson Brown was targeted for an audit within a month of suing to open Mrs. Clinton’s secret health care task force to public scrutiny.

But the piece de resistance came just last month when homemaker Paula Jones announced she had received an audit notice days after rejecting a settlement of her sexual harassment suit against the president. However, I don’t blame Bill Clinton alone for Mrs. Jones’ audit. It was literally invited by congressional inaction over the previous 12 months.

Is it even conceivable that the IRS and White House would have taken such a political risk if Congress had shown some backbone and investigated the pattern six months earlier? I don’t think so. And if Congress doesn’t get serious about investigating these abuses now, they will only become more routine, more blatant and more chilling in the future.

Congress needs to stop its IRS show trials that result in the suspension of mid-level managers and start exposing and attacking the root problem — a problem which continues to reside in taxpayer-supported comfort at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

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