The IRS Scandal: Who's Next on the Chopping Block?
Policy + Politics

The IRS Scandal: Who's Next on the Chopping Block?

REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

A new Gallup poll found that "slim majorities" of Americans are very or somewhat closely following two controversies embroiling the Obama administration: 53 percent are keeping up with the Benghazi congressional hearings and 54 percent are following the IRS targeting of Tea Party tax-exempt applicants. Those numbers are "comparatively low based on historical measures of other news stories over the last two decades."

Well, scandal needs fuel — here's today's, courtesy of ABC News: Sarah Hall Ingram, the IRS commissioner who once oversaw the division that processes tax-exempt organizations, now heads the IRS office responsible for overseeing the new tax laws in Obamacare.

Hall's successor, Joseph Grant, "is taking the fall for misdeeds at the scandal-plagued unit between 2010 and 2012," say John Parkinson and Steven Portnoy at ABC News. On Thursday, he tendered his resignation. Grant was deputy or acting commissioner during that period, but only took permanent control of the office on May 8.

Ingram's connection to the scandal is sort of murky. An employee of the IRS since 1982, Ingram was named commissioner of the Tax Exempt/Government Entities Division in 2009, and ABC News suggests she held the job though 2012. But the IRS tells CNN that Ingram left for the Affordable Care Act division in December 2010, at which point Grant took over as acting commissioner.

Still, staffers in the sinister-sounding Determinations Unit started singling out Tea Party applicants for 501(c)(4) tax-exempt status in mid-2010, so that puts Ingram in charge of the broader division when the scandal began. This is catnip for Obama critics — even if she had no role in putting conservative-sounding groups on the infamous "be on the lookout" (BOLO) list (and the inspector general's report suggests she wouldn't have).

Why? "Republicans had already tried to tie the IRS scandal to the healthcare law, simply by virtue of the fact that the IRS is responsible for a huge amount of the law's most significant provisions," say Sam Baker and Bernie Becker at The Hill. "A more direct connection to the Tea Party scandal, though, could inflame GOP criticism."

That's a pretty safe bet. The House's latest quixotic attempt to repeal Obamacare on Thursday was largely framed as a way to protect Americans from the IRS. "Obamacare empowers the agency that just violated the public's trust by secretly targeting conservative groups," said Rep. Marlin Stutzman (R-Ind.). Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) called the news that Ingram had moved from the tax-exempt office to the Obamacare division "stunning, just stunning."

It's worth noting that Obama can't actually fire Ingram. She's a civil servant and the president can only sack the IRS' two political appointees: The commissioner and the general counsel. The commissioner is gone, replaced Thursday by Office of Management and Budget official Danny Werfel. But Obama has pledged to hold accountable anyone who had a role in the debacle.

Andrew Sullivan, in a post that otherwise called the Obama scandals overblown, says that Ingram "has no business still working in the IRS, let alone on healthcare reform. She should be fired."

Does Ingram really deserve the boot? "She is a 1979 graduate of Yale and a 1982 graduate of Georgetown Law," says Carol Platt Liebau at Townhall, so "she was obviously aware of just how unconstitutional and wrongful the targeting scheme was." But her move over the ACA division raises bigger questions:

It's interesting — and potentially significant — that she was put in charge of the Obamacare IRS office. Did someone in the administration know she could be trusted to play political hardball? Was the post a reward for her service at the IRS? Whose idea was this nomination? How far up the chain was it approved? [Townhall]

If Republicans can tie any part of the IRS Tea Party targeting to the Obama administration, says Ezra Klein at The Washington Post, "it would crack this White House wide open. That would be a genuine scandal."

But nothing in the inspector general's report indicates this was anything other than a move by managers in the Determinations Unit, which was slapped down when higher-ups found out. "The White House fired the acting director of the agency on the theory that somebody had to be fired and he was about the only guy they had the power to fire," says Klein. Unless there's a bigger revelation, he adds, "it's hard to see where this one goes from here."

Mark Tapscott at The Washington Examiner reports that Ingram received $103,390 in bonuses between 2009 and 2012, including $34,440 in 2010, $35,400 in 2011, and $26,550 last year. Here's what the White House Office of Personnel Management says about bonuses that big: "If the recommended award is over $25,000, the Director of OPM reviews the nomination and forwards his/her recommendation to the President for approval." (Tapscott also notes that Ingram got a $47,900 bonus from George W. Bush in 2004.)

Either way, "it's the law not to abuse power at the IRS to stifle one side's voices based on political or ideological criteria," says Mary Katherine Ham at Hot Air. "And, it was the law when Ingram was head of Exempt Organizations." Before she took over the tax-exemption unit in 2009, says Ham, she was its deputy commissioner from 2004 to 2006, "where she presumably would have had the opportunity to scrutinize the determination applications of a flood of left-leaning 501(c)(4)s."

Surely, the anti-Bush fervor and politics of an off-year election would have created a disproportionate number of liberal groups applying for status even pre-Citizens United — a situation similar to the one that allegedly justified the IRS' improper scrutiny of conservatives in 2010 — yet we haven't heard about Ingram coming down systematically on them. [Hot Air]

Now hold on, says Martin Longman at Booman Tribune. The groups that formed organically in response to Bush's decision to invade Iraq didn't have hidden donors, corporate sponsors, or lawyers. Unlike the Tea Party groups that sprang up in 2009, "none of us, as far as I know, asked the IRS for 501(c)(4) tax-exempt status," says Booman:

I don't think it even occurred to any of us that we could pretend to be a social welfare group and raise money without being subject to taxation. That's because we aren't criminals. I am infuriated by these stories about Tea Party groups who are complaining that seeking tax-exempt status was like having a proctology exam. While I acknowledge that the IRS made unreasonable requests and caused unreasonable delays, I am even more outraged that they did not deny tax-exempt status to even one Tea Party group. Not one.

There isn't a single Tea Party group in the country that isn't primarily concerned with political matters. None of them should have qualified for tax-exempt status. None.... Opposing disastrous war serves the public welfare even better than opposing historically-low tax rates. Where's our refund? [Booman Tribune]