What would a person have to do to be labeled “very nasty” by the Internal Revenue Service?
That’s exactly what Insight Magazine reporter John Berlau wants to know. WorldNetDaily obtained an e-mail this week that had been forwarded among IRS employees. The memo calls Berlau a “very persistent, very aggressive, very nasty reporter.” Terry Lemons, chief of national media relations for the IRS, originated the e-mail.
Formerly of Investor’s Business Daily, Berlau has written a series of articles for Insight about conflicts of interest among high-level federal officials, including Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill and IRS Commissioner Charles Rossotti. But while O’Neill sold off his interests in Alcoa Corp., to the tune of $100 million, Rossotti has kept his stock in American Management Systems — a company he co-founded with his wife and which has millions of dollars in contracts with the IRS, reported Berlau.
Rossotti was given a last-minute waiver by the Clinton administration, allowing him to keep his shares in AMS, valued between $16 million and $80 million, Berlau wrote.
Naturally, the reporter sought to investigate why a Bush appointee was pressured by the media to sell while a Clinton appointee in the new Republican administration did not come under scrutiny.
“I don’t think I was being nasty. I gave them plenty of time to answer,” said Berlau, noting he often asked questions days in advance of his deadlines. “I was doing my job.”
After writing several stories about Rossotti’s conflict of interest, and after revealing that the only IRS whistle-blower from the 1997 congressional investigations into the agency’s abuses — Jennifer Long — may have been the target of retribution, Berlau was singled out. Agents were told to refer him to the media relations department rather than speak to him directly.
Sent by Lemons on April 26 to at least eight IRS employees, the e-mail was forwarded by Steven Burgess to at least 31 more employees. Burgess is a compliance director in Dallas and is behind the alleged retaliation against Long. Having recently passed her certified public accountant exam, Long sent a routine form from the Texas licensing board that asks employers to verify an applicant’s character and fitness for duty. According to Berlau’s report, the IRS sent the form back to the Texas board, declining to answer the question but saying that it would send a “narrative.” That narrative was written by Burgess and accused the whistle-blower of sloppy practices during audits. But Long says she never met with nor discussed her work with Burgess.
Berlau’s boss at Insight, Managing Editor Paul Rodriguez, said the name-calling was inaccurate and unnecessary.
“Anyone who knows John knows he’s nothing but a pussy cat who is incapable of being rude, other than through exuberance. First and foremost, he’s a good newsman who doesn’t take bulls–t. He asks a question; he expects an answer — an honest inquiry, an honest response. And when he doesn’t get an honest answer or an honest response, he asks why,” he told WorldNetDaily.
“The press is there for people who want to know the truth and various points of contention about the truth. And it’s the job of government officials and their bureaucrats to give information to reporters,” Rodriquez continued.
But Lemons wants Berlau only to speak to media professionals at the IRS. In his e-mail to employees, Lemons instructed agents to “politely decline any questions and refer [Berlau] to Media Relations. …”
A spokesman for the IRS was a bit touchy when WND informed him it had obtained a copy of the e-mail. Public Affairs Specialist Anthony Burke said he was familiar with Berlau and that the reporter was “no doubt critical of the Internal Revenue Service.” He quickly added, however, that he did not know exactly what Berlau had written since the IRS did not monitor Insight’s news stories because the magazine is “not a big publication, if you know what I mean.”
For confidentiality reasons, WND did not respond to Burke’s inquiry as to how it obtained the e-mail.
The spokesman also said, “I probably have an e-mail about John Berlau” in his inbox, though he could not recall the word “nasty” being used in reference to the reporter.
A source for WND said the e-mail was ultimately disseminated to more than those listed on the e-mail. Initial recipients were group managers and their secretaries, but in some cases, the e-mail was then printed and a hardcopy given to revenue officers. It is unknown exactly how many IRS agents received a copy of the memo.