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My open letter to Congress

WASHINGTON — As you read this column today, I am scheduled to be interviewed by the staff of Congress’ Joint Committee on Taxation as part of its investigation into political manipulation of the Internal Revenue Service. Here’s what I plan to tell them:

In the summer of 1996, IRS field agent Thomas Cederquist called on the accountant for the Western Journalism Center to announce that the independent investigative reporting organization would be audited. He submitted document requests demanding to know why the center had supported the work of reporter Christopher Ruddy, what kind of peer-review process was used to select him as an associate and what efforts were made to “balance” his stories. Cederquist also informed accountant John Roux that he believed the center had been improperly classified as a 501(c)3 tax-exempt educational corporation.

When Roux questioned the rush to judgment and the intrusive nature of the audit, not of our finances, but of the content of our work, Cederquist boldly, if foolishly, showed his hand.

“Look, this is a political case, and the decision will be made at the national level,” he said.

Cederquist would make similar statements on two more occasions. During nine months of grueling examinations and expansions of the audit, the statement was never retracted. Though Cederquist’s supervisor once tried to explain what he really meant was that the national office in Washington might be consulted on “technical issues” raised by the case.

On Oct. 22, 1996, I told this story in the pages of the Wall Street Journal, and I have no doubts that many IRS officials in Washington were consulted after the appearance of that article, which blew the lid off the dirty little secret that America’s most feared government agency was being used as a political weapon against perceived enemies of the Clinton administration.

There’s a paper trail behind this audit that leads right to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. It begins with a lengthy task memo written by White House Associate Counsel Jane Sherburne in December 1994. The memo outlined 39 individual scandals already eating away at the administration – from Whitewater to Travelgate and even some, like Filegate, which had not yet been made public. Under the heading “Vincent Foster’s death,” Sherburne listed Chris Ruddy and the “Center for Western Journalism” as two areas of concern.

Why the unusual juxtaposition of the words “Western Journalism Center”? Interesting question. Due to an attorney’s mistake during our incorporation process, “Center for Western Journalism” became the group’s official name. But it is used nowhere in the organization’s brochures, advertising, letterhead or other public documents. It is, however, used in one place in Washington, D.C. – the files of the Internal Revenue Service.

In 1995, the same White House Counsel’s Office helped prepare and distribute to a select group of establishment reporters a 331-page document called “The Communication Stream of Conspiracy Commerce,” which alleged the Western Journalism Center and two other news organizations were pulling the strings behind a vast right-wing media conspiracy hell-bent on destroying the Clinton administration. Taxpayer money was used to gather dossiers on me and a handful of other principals profiled in the report. Yet, because the Democratic National Committee was also involved in its preparation and distribution, this was clearly a political document.

That same year, then-Energy Secretary Hazel O’Leary told one of our major donors that if he gave any more support to the Western Journalism Center, his federal contracts would be in jeopardy.

Then came the audit in 1996. Is it far-fetched to believe the White House was involved in the decision to target the Western Journalism Center? I suggest it is far-fetched to believe it wasn’t – especially after what we have learned recently about the character of this administration.

We have now identified about two dozen non-profit organizations considered “unfriendly” to the Clinton administration that have been subjected to audits during the Clinton years. They include the American Spectator, one of the three news organizations cited in the 331-page report, the National Review, the Heritage Foundation, the National Rifle Association, Concerned Women of America and Citizens Against Government Waste. Not a single high-profile “friendly” non-profit has been found to have been audited during this same time period. Coincidence? That’s what the administration would have the American people believe.

It would also have us believe that the audit of Paula Jones was the result of a statistical anomaly. Likewise Billy Dale, the former Travel Office director unceremoniously fired by Hillary Clinton. In his case, too, there is a paper trail to indicate the audit began in the White House Counsel’s Office. According to congressional investigators, former Associate Counsel William Kennedy told the FBI to launch an investigation into Dale and his office or he would be forced to turn to other agencies such as the IRS. A week later, Dale was served with his audit papers.

The evidence is overwhelming. And the use of the IRS as a political weapon must not be swept under the rug or lost as an issue in the media frenzy over the latest White House abuse-of-power scandal.