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Imagine you live in a country where journalists exposing corruption and cover-up at the highest levels of government face political retribution, official harassment and shakedowns by the widely feared and dreaded tax-enforcement agency.

Welcome to America, circa 1998. It’s happening today — right here in the land of the free and the home of the brave. It happened to me.

I don’t want this to happen to other Americans, other journalists — and especially to my children. So, on Monday, my news agency, in conjunction with the public interest legal action group Judicial Watch, is filing a $20 million civil rights suit against the IRS and White House operatives responsible.

Here’s my story. In 1994, my organization, the Western Journalism Center, a non-profit, tax-exempt group of investigative reporters, began digging into unanswered questions surrounding the death of White House Deputy Counsel Vincent Foster. Within months, Jane Sherburne in the White House counsel’s office had prepared a task memo revealing official concern with our work.

During the next year, the White House and its allies in the Democratic National Committee began building a secret dossier on the center and me personally. By 1995, these files were used to prepare a 331-page report, “Communication Stream of Conspiracy Commerce,” designed to discredit our investigations and the work of a handful of others researching Clinton administration scandals. The report, prepared and distributed at taxpayer expense, was leaked to select reporters. To this day, the White House has refused all requests to provide us with a copy of the report and other files used to prepare it.

By 1996, an IRS agent visited our accountant to announce that the center was the target of an audit and that our tax-exempt status was being challenged. The first document requests revealed the political nature of the intrusive audit. The IRS showed little real concern with our bookkeeping procedures, our financial records or our fund-raising techniques. Instead, the tax collector questioned our journalistic standards and practices, our choice of investigative reporting projects and, most of all, our continuing probe of Foster’s death.

If you’re beginning to envision the First Amendment trashed and burned by heavy-handed bureaucrats and power-mad politicians, it gets worse.

When our accountant questioned the direction of the audit, IRS field agent Thomas Cederquist responded: “Look, this is a political case and the decision will be made at the national level.” Just so there would be no mistake, the agent repeated this statement on a subsequent occasion.

Rather than take this un-American form of harassment lying down, I went public with my story. I also showed that our case was part of a broad pattern of political audits of other journalists and non-journalists alike — anyone, it seemed, who had challenged the Clinton administration on ethics, policy and propriety.

The flurry of national publicity paid immediate dividends. IRS Commissioner Margaret Milner Richardson, a close friend and political ally of the Clintons, unexpectedly resigned. Congress’ Joint Committee on Taxation announced an investigation of the pattern of political audits. Other congressional committees began focusing attention on IRS abuses.

But the IRS escalated the pressure on us — extending the audit into another tax year. Officials refused to allow me to tape-record examinations, as was my right under the law. They demanded documents well beyond the purview of a financial audit — including all incoming and outgoing correspondence for a full year. They forced us to divert our limited staff time and resources to defending ourselves with a seemingly endless paper chase — every single letter, memo, contract, phone records, you name it. Attorney and accountant man-hours mounted.

Nine grueling months later, the IRS closed the case, extended our tax-exempt status and launched a face-saving internal investigation of its own agent — but not before the damage to our center had been done. Half the staff had to be laid off. One of two publications the center produced had to be folded. The strain on our time and resources had nearly bankrupted the organization.

Nearly two years after this ordeal began, Congress has yet to issue a report on political abuse of the IRS. The IRS refuses Freedom of Information Act requests to turn over the center’s case file. And the pattern of political audits continues to expand.

President Nixon attempted to abuse the IRS and was shut down by his own bureaucracy. President Clinton has succeeded. America can’t afford the chilling effect of such blatant political intimidation. Whether you are a Democrat, a Republican or a fiercely independent American like me, it’s time to recognize that such repressive actions are the stuff of fascist dictatorships, not republics which truly cherish and uphold the values of free speech and a free press.

If the White House won’t stop it, and Congress won’t act, perhaps the courts will.

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