Missing tapes? Abuse of power? It’s 1974 all over again, with one exception – there seems to be no Woodward and Bernstein interested in delving into an abuse of power and a cover-up.
The parallels between the crisis in the Richard Nixon presidency and the current political environment are intriguing, if not entirely dispositive. Forty-two years ago, the targeting of political enemies by the executive branch erupted as one of the worst political scandals in American history, and took almost two years to reach its apex. A national election and the withdrawal from an unpopular war overshadowed the scandal for awhile, but the press kept Watergate on the front burner long enough for the cover-up to fall apart in 1974.
Forty years later, we have another scandal involving abuse of political power that targeted political opponents of the president. We have one IRS official in the executive branch refusing to testify, and now the same agency claims they cannot produce her e-mails during the time of the targeting.
When Congress erupted in outrage, the IRS added that they had also lost the email data for six more figures related to the targeting of conservative groups by the tax-exempt investigations unit. Yet the questions from the media these days largely focus on whether this is a “phony scandal” or an indication of corruption in the federal government’s most powerful agency.
Contrast that reaction to the media interest 40 years ago. Few remember that among the articles of impeachment under consideration by the House of Representatives in 1974 was a charge that the Nixon administration attempted to manipulate the power of the IRS against its political enemies. Article Two, Section One accused Nixon of “acting personally and through his subordinates and agents” to have his political opponents audited and to access their private data. Other allegations in the Watergate scandal eclipsed that particular accusation, but that article passed on a 28-10 bipartisan vote in the House Judiciary Committee.
There are are numerous differences between the two scandals, too. For one thing, no one has tied this to the White House or any of President Barack Obama’s advisers. The closest insinuation between the IRS targeting scandal has been an unusual meeting between the IRS’ chief counsel, William Wilkins, and Obama on April 23, 2012. The chief counsel for the IRS would have no discernible reason for a private meeting with the president; his job would be to brief the IRS commissioner - at the time Douglas Shulman – who met with Obama the very next day.
The day after that, Wilkins sent a revised set of guidelines to Lois Lerner for the tax-exempt unit to use when applying extra scrutiny. To this day, no explanation for this meeting has been made public, even though records show that Wilkins spent hours at the White House with “POTUS” as his host.
Nor was this the first time that Wilkins appears in the targeting narrative. Carter Hull, a retired high-ranking IRS official with 48 years’ experience at the agency, testified that after he approved a Tea Party-related tax-exempt application, it got routed to Wilkins rather than finalized.
After other clashes on approval for these groups, Hull got cut out of the loop in favor of an analyst with less than a year on the job. Hull also described an August 2011 meeting with three of Wilkins’ representatives present in which the extra scrutiny was discussed, a meeting corroborated by the Inspector General report that prompted the exposure of the targeting effort.
Two different House committees wanted to know more about what instructions Lerner issued in conducting the targeting, and more to the point, who may have instructed Lerner to target conservative groups in the first place. Lerner refused to testify when subpoenaed by the House Oversight Committee, but the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee both demanded all of her communications from the IRS. Those records could help establish whether this was a “phony scandal,” as the White House has insisted last year, or whether the abuse of power was a coordinated political strategy.
The House Ways and Means Committee pressed the matter for months, while the IRS dragged its feet. In March, new IRS Commissioner John Koskinen reassured chair Dave Camp that the IRS kept solid records of their communications and that collation of the material would only be a matter of time. However, time apparently ran out last Friday afternoon, when Koskinen told Camp that the IRS had lost two years of Lerner’s email data due to a hard-drive failure – and that the IRS only keeps six months’ server data on backup while requiring businesses to store far more.
A few days later, the IRS announced that they had similar two-year gaps for six more IRS officials connected to the targeting effort. While the IRS has been able to piece together the internal-only emails from Lerner and the other six officials, they claim that any emails between these seven IRS officials and outside agencies has been forever lost. Coincidentally, that’s exactly what the House panel wants to see.
Isn’t that rather … convenient? It certainly moves this from “phony scandal” to potential minefield for Barack Obama – or at least it should, if anyone pays attention. The hypocrisy alone is breathtaking: the government’s biggest stickler for accurate records and lengthy archival requirements claiming to have little regard itself for such measures.
Even worse, though, is the sudden change in story about the ability to access the archives. Koskinen’s long delay in informing Ways and Means of what the IRS now claims is a normal limitation on accessing archival data from its email servers doesn’t just look convenient, but very much like the agency has something to hide.
With all of these red flags and roadblocks on transparency, one might think that the media might start getting a little more interested in the scope of this abuse of power. Instead, the only curiosity appears to be whether this all means that the IRS should get even more money in its budget, because tape backups for more than six months apparently breaks the bank in an agency that gets $11.3 billion in the FY2014 budget.
Ironically, the IRS got extra cash a few years ago to modernize their internal systems, Fox reported at the time, while noting that the FY2015 budget request from the White House increased the IRS allocation by over 11 percent. In response to the lack of cooperation with the probe, the Appropriations Committee just trimmed 15 percent off Obama’s budget request for the IRS, and warns that the agency should stick to its “core functions.”
Perhaps the hue and cry over the lost funding will finally start to interest the media forty years after their tenacity over abuse of executive power forced accountability on a corrupt administration.
Unfortunately, a lot has changed since Watergate – and a lot hasn’t.
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