NEW YORK – A House committee investigating the IRS scandal has found a link between President Obama’s criticism of the Citizens United Supreme Court decision and subsequent steps taken by IRS official Lois Lerner to discriminate against conservative groups.
Lerner was responding to political pressure in her efforts to clamp down on conservative organizations seeking tax-exempt status in the wake of the 2012 Supreme Court case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, concluded a 141-page report released last Tuesday by the Republican-majority staff of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
Lerner twice has invoked the Fifth Amendment and refused to answer questions in appearances before the committee.
The report clearly raised the question of whether or not the political pressure came from the White House.
“It’s not the job of the IRS to overrule the Supreme Court, and it’s not the job of the IRS to crush political movements its leaders dislike,” the report said. “Her deep involvement in this scheme raises even more questions about who else was involved – including at the White House.”
The report said Lerner “led efforts to scrutinize conservative groups while working to maintain a veneer of objective enforcement.”
Following Obama’s lead?
The House report linked statements made by President Obama in political speeches during the 2010 mid-term election attacking the Citizens United Supreme Court decision with emails and speeches Lerner subsequently wrote expressing her intent to administer the IRS tax-exempt division in a partisan manner.
On Jan. 23, 2010, President Obama declared the Citizens United “ruling strikes at our democracy itself” and “opens the floodgates for an unlimited amount of special interest money into our democracy.”
Less than a week later, the president publicly criticized the decision during his State of the Union address.
“With all due deference to separation of powers, last week the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests – including foreign corporations – to spend without limit in our elections,” he said. “I don’t think American elections should be bankrolled by America’s most powerful interests, or worse by foreign entities. They should be decided by the American people.”
The report pointed out that over the next several months, Obama continued his public tirade against the Supreme Court decision, so-called “secret money” in politics and the emergence of conservative grassroots groups.
In a July 2010 White House Rose Garden speech, the president proclaimed: “Because of the Supreme Court’s decision earlier this year in the Citizens United case, big corporations … can buy millions of dollars worth of TV ads – and worst of all, they don’t even have to reveal who’s actually paying for the ads.
Obama said “these shadow groups are already forming and building war chests of tens of millions of dollars to influence the fall elections.”
He made a similar statement in an August 2010 campaign event.
“Right now all around this country there are groups with harmless-sounding names like Americans for Prosperity, who are running millions of dollars of ads against Democratic candidates all across the country,” Obama said.
“And they don’t have to say who exactly the Americans for Prosperity are. You don’t know if it’s a foreign-controlled corporation. You don’t know if it’s a big oil company, or a big bank. You don’t know if it’s a insurance [sic] company that wants to see some of the provisions in health reform repealed because it’s good for their bottom line, even if it’s not good for the American people.”
Then, at a September 2010 campaign event, Obama stated: “Right now, all across this country, special interests are running millions of dollars of attack ads against Democratic candidates. And the reason for this is last year’s Supreme Court decision in Citizens United, which basically says that special interests can gather up millions of dollars – they are now allowed to spend as much as they want without limit, and they don’t have to ever reveal who’s paying for these ads.”
‘Need to have a plan’
The House committee report cited emails Lerner wrote subsequent to Obama’s 2010 speeches in which she argued that IRS officials “need to have a plan” to handle the applications from certain tax-exempt groups.”
Yet, she couched the aim with language that suggested she wanted to cover her partisan goals, writing for instance, “We need to be cautious so it isn’t a per se political project.”
The report also noted that on Oct. 19, 2010, Lerner spoke at an event sponsored by Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy in which she referenced in her speech the political pressure the IRS faced to “fix the problem” of 501(c)(4) groups engaging in political activity.
“What happened last year was the Supreme Court – the law kept getting chipped away, chipped away in the federal election arena. The Supreme Court dealt a huge blow, overturning a 100-year old precedent that basically corporations couldn’t give directly to political campaigns. And everyone is up in arms because they don’t like it. The Federal Election Commission can’t do anything about it,” Lerner said.
“They want the IRS to fix the problem. The IRS laws are not set up to fix the problem: (c)(4)s can do straight political activity. They can go out and pay for an ad that says, “Vote for Joe Blow.” That’s something they can do as long as their primary activity is their (c)(4) activity, which is social welfare.”
Consequently, Lerner said, “everybody is screaming at us right now: ‘Fix it now before the election. Can’t you see how much these people are spending?’”
She said she wouldn’t know until she looks at the IRS Form 990s “whether they have done more than their primary activity as political or not.”
“So I can’t do anything right now,” she said.
While the House Oversight Committee lacked documentation proving Lerner was given a direct order by the White House to discriminate against conservatives, the report demonstrated that Lerner, along with several other senior IRS officials, established in early 2011 a “multi-tier review” process that resulted in long delays for tax-exempt applications submitted by conservative organizations.
The report stressed Lerner’s goals in implementing procedures to delay or deny tax-exempt applications by conservative groups was to help Democrats to win elections.
“Even without her full testimony, and despite the fact that the IRS has still not turned over many of her e-mails, a political agenda to crack down on tax-exempt organizations comes into focus,” the report concluded. “Lerner believed the political participation of tax-exempt organizations harmed Democratic candidates, she believed something needed to be done, and she directed action from her unit at the IRS.”
The report said the committee continues to offer Lerner the opportunity to testify, even though there is not much reason to be optimistic it will happen unless she is given immunity.
“Many questions remain, including the identities of others at the IRS and elsewhere who may have known about key events and decisions she undertook,” the report noted in the final paragraph. “Americans, and particularly those Americans who faced mistreatment at the hands of the IRS, deserve the full documented truth that both Lois Lerner and the IRS have withheld with them.”
‘I am tired of this’
WND reported Issa adjourned last week’s hearing after asking only seven questions when Lerner asserted for a second time her Fifth Amendment privilege not to incriminate herself.
On June 28, 2013, the House Oversight Committee voted that Lerner had waived her Fifth Amendment privilege by making a voluntary opening statement asserting her innocence at a May 22 hearing.
Prior to the hearing last week, Lerner had indicated she would only testify in exchange for a grant of immunity; subsequently, in a series of emails between Lerner’s attorney and committee staff, she agreed to testify openly, but requested a one-week delay for the March 5 hearing.
When Issa adjourned the hearing last week, ranking member Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., objected with an angry tirade that prompted Issa to have his mic cut off.
“I am a member of the House of Representatives and I am tired of this,” Cummings asserted in an angry voice.
For several minutes after Issa gaveled the hearing to a close, Cummings continued to read his statement into a closed microphone as the hearing room emptied and Lerner sat at the witness table listening.
On Jan. 12, WND reported that the IRS has proposed new rules that would limit the ability of conservative 501(c)4 groups to participate in the mid-term elections this November as they had in 2010, when Republicans grabbed majority control of the House of Representatives.
Last week, WND reported Cleta Mitchell, a leading Washington-based attorney representing a number of grass-roots organizations claiming they were targeted by the IRS, said at the CPAC annual conference of conservatives last week that the Department of Justice had questioned Lerner sometime during the previous six months. However, the department, under Attorney General Eric Holder, so far has declined to initiate criminal prosecutions against Lerner or any other IRS officials implicated in the discrimination scandal.