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The U.S. Justice Department has asked federal Judge Milton Schwartz, the dean of the Northern California bench, to recuse himself from our $10 million lawsuit against officials and former officials of the Internal Revenue Service and White House for the political audit of the Western Journalism Center.

Last Friday, in a preliminary hearing on the case, Judge Schwartz surprised the U.S. attorneys defending the government and counsel for the center by relating his own personal battles with the IRS — a fight he has waged for the last 55 years.

Because of this experience, the judge, an appointee of President Carter, offered to recuse himself if either side objected to his hearing of the case. Immediately, our legal team, headed by Larry Klayman, founder of Judicial Watch, told Judge Schwartz that we had no objection to him and would not ask him to reassign the case. The Justice Department attorneys said they would have to check with two individuals named in our suit — IRS field agent Thomas Cederquist and former IRS Commissioner Margaret Milner Richardson.

After a brief recess, the Justice Department attorneys announced they were unable to reach Richardson. Earlier this week, they announced they would exercise their option to have the case reassigned.

Surprise, surprise. Imagine that. The Democratic administration is afraid it won’t get a fair hearing from a judge employed by the government and appointed by a president of the same party. Why? Because he apparently has experienced abuse at the hands of the same agency that abused the complainant in this case.

Judge Schwartz demonstrated a great deal of integrity and honesty in making the offer to recuse himself. He had already presided over one procedural hearing in the case without mentioning his possible conflict. This was an afterthought. Yet, the government seized on the opportunity to delay, to stall, to stonewall this case — knowing full well the Clinton administration has less than 27 months left.

You can understand why Janet Reno’s Justice Department would want to see this case postponed for as long as possible. Our case, and our research into a pattern of political abuse of the IRS by the Clinton administration, has already been submitted to Congress for consideration in the impeachment process.

What does it show? That more than two dozen organizations critical of Clinton administration policies have been subjected to audits. Many individuals who have crossed swords with Clinton have also been targeted — including high-profile “enemies” such as Paula Jones and Billy Dale.

But the case of the Western Journalism Center is especially compelling. After all, we were officially targeted by the White House for attack as far back as December 1994 in written memoranda. In 1995, the White House counsel’s office prepared and distributed a 331-page report designed to discredit our work exposing the Clinton administration scandals. Then, lo and behold, the IRS came knocking in June 1996.

The IRS was preoccupied with the content of our First Amendment-protected work — why we were covering White House scandals, why we had contracted with certain reporters, what attempts were made to “balance” our work. When we questioned the right of the IRS to ask such intrusive questions, we were told: “Look, this is a political case, and the decision’s going to be made at the national level.”

We were also told, in no uncertain terms, that the goal of the audit was to remove our tax-exempt status. It was alleged that since we were critical of the president in an election year, we were a “partisan” organization. Never mind the fact that Bill Clinton was the head of government, as well as being a political candidate. This was an effort to shut us down — the one truly independent news agency willing to take on the powers that be, no matter what the cost.

Yes, I’m sure the Justice Department is not eager to take on this case — especially while Bill Clinton is still occupying the White House. Why do today what you can put off until tomorrow.

Maybe, just maybe, the Justice Department hopes, the case will be assigned to a Clinton appointee. If that happens, it will be interesting to see if that judge has as much integrity, dignity, fairness and honor as Judge Schwartz.

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