Concluding that “poor management is not a crime,” the Justice Department on Friday informed members of Congress that it would not be filing criminal charges against anyone in what has become known as the Internal Revenue Service targeting scandal, which roiled Washington in the wake of the 2012 elections.
The controversy came to be personified by Lois Lerner, the IRS official who oversaw a unit charged with assessing whether or not organizations qualified for tax-exempt status.
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When applications for tax-exempt status spiked in the aftermath of a Supreme Court ruling loosening restrictions on donations to non-profits with “social welfare” purposes, IRS employees in the Cincinnati-based “determinations unit” sought ways to identify groups who appeared to be at higher risk of crossing the line into outright political advocacy.
The result was a system that left many conservative leaning groups in limbo as they endured a lengthy approval process. The impression many got – and which Republicans in Congress shared – was that the IRS was trying to prevent conservative organizations from getting tax exempt status in advance of the 2012 election.
That impression only hardened when the IRS turned out to be unable to produce most of Ms. Lerner’s email correspondence during a period relevant to the investigation, and when Lerner herself invoked her Fifth Amendment rights and refused to testify before Congress.
The DOJ letter specifically exonerates Ms. Lerner, saying that investigators “took special care to evaluate whether Ms. Lerner had criminal culpability” and concluded that she did not.
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While she came in for some criticism of her management decisions, the letter actually praised Lerner for being the first IRS official to spot the problem in the determinations division and for taking prompt action to bring it to a halt.
In a letter to the senior members of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Assistant Attorney General Peter J. Kadzik said that the agency had conducted a comprehensive investigation that included interviews with more than 100 witnesses, examination of more than 500 applications for tax exempt status, and the collection of more than 1 million pages of IRS records.
“Our investigation uncovered substantial evidence of mismanagement, poor judgment, and institutional inertia, leading to the belief by many tax-exempt applicants that the IRS targeted them based on their political viewpoints. But poor management is not a crime.
“We found no evidence that any IRS official acted based on political discriminatory, corrupt, or other inappropriate motives that would support a criminal prosecution. We also found no evidence that any official involved in the handling of tax-exempt applications of IRS leadership attempted to obstruct justice.”
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Naturally, the DOJ’s determination did not satisfy everyone, particularly conservative groups that have long determined that Lerner and the IRS are guilty.
Mark Meckler, the president of Citizens for Self-Governance, a Tea Party-affiliated organization that is suing the IRS over the alleged targeting, said, “Today’s decision by the Department of Justice is a whitewash and miscarriage of justice at the highest levels of law-enforcement where they put political interests over the First Amendment, the Constitution and the American people.
“It’s no wonder why so many Americans have had it with Washington and the elite political class who can get away with something like this.”
But conservative activists were not alone in their disappointment. Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), the Chairman of the House Oversight Committee, also dismissed the DOJ’s decision as politically motivates.
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“This announcement is a reminder that the Obama administration continues to refuse to hold anyone accountable at the IRS,” Chaffetz said in a release. “Over two years ago, [the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration] conducted an audit confirming the IRS was targeting conservative organizations because of their political beliefs.
“While DOJ may have closed its investigation, as a coequal branch of government, Congress will continue to seek accountability for the American people. A clear message must be sent that using government agencies to stifle citizens’ freedom of speech will not be tolerated. If the administration won’t send that message, Congress will.”