A Real-Time Example Of How Scandals Are Manufactured, Cont'd

Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

IRS ScandalNational Review's John Fund has joined the effort to revive the deteriorating Internal Revenue Service "scandal," in which conservative groups seeking non-profit status were supposedly targeted by the agency, by speculating wildly over issues for which no wrongdoing has been established.

National Review and The Wall Street Journal have tried to breathe new life into the IRS scandal, which has received less attention from the press following reports that progressive groups were also targeted for additional scrutiny. That effort has involved accusing, with scant evidence, the IRS and the Federal Election Commission of inappropriately colluding against conservative non-profits.

National Review's Fund has added his voice to that endeavor, citing previous NR reporting to claim that the IRS was attempting to "influence an FEC commissioner's vote on the legality of actions by a conservative nonprofit group."

As we noted on August 2 regarding the original NR story:

According to the conservative magazine, in 2009 a FEC official emailed Lerner inquiring after the tax exempt status of a group called American Future Fund, which was under investigation by the commission following a complaint by Minnesota Democrats over the group's alleged political activities. National Review refers to the group's tax status as "confidential taxpayer information" of the sort that the IRS is prohibited from sharing, though it's not immediately clear that this information is indeed "confidential." The IRS maintains a public list of organizations that have been granted tax exempt status, and tax-exempt groups are required by law to make public their "exemption applications, determination letters, and annual returns." The IRS issued a statement saying the email exchange indicates "that neither person wanted the IRS to provide the FEC with anything other than publicly available information," and Lerner's attorney told the Washington Post that "anyone in the world could get that information."

National Review even quoted the chair of the House Ways and Means Committee's statement saying the "American public is entitled to know whether the IRS is inappropriately sharing their confidential tax information with other agencies." So they don't know whether this happened; they're investigating to see whether it happened.

Fund places his speculation at the center of the allegation that the Obama administration may be engaged in "a slow-motion cover-up," because while the Obama administration has suggested there's "nothing to see here," "the IRS scandal is growing, not shrinking." For Fund, this leads to the conclusion that the investigations "will have to expand."

Fund paints his picture of a burgeoning scandal by trying to link William Wilkins, the IRS chief counsel and an Obama political appointee, directly to the story. He writes:

Last Sunday, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew appeared on Fox News Sunday and backed up the president. He did damage control on recent congressional testimony by IRS lawyer Carter Hull that implicated the office of William Wilkins, the IRS's chief counsel and an Obama political appointee -- Wilkins is by no means the "rogue" low-level bureaucrat the administration first blamed for the scandal.

Note how Fund pivots from stating that Wilkins' "office" was implicated to suggesting that the chief counsel himself is involved. There are 1,600 members of that "office," and Hull's testimony in no way implicated Wilkins directly. Even House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) has acknowledged that there is no evidence of Wilkins' involvement. But by concealing that point, Fund brings the scandal a step away from the president.

Fund seeks to buttress this point by asking readers to "consider this timeline of IRS activity in the spring of 2010, as midterm elections loomed and the tea-party groups targeted by the IRS began seeing their applications for nonprofit status slow-walked or put into deep freeze." He reports that on April 23, 2010, two days before Wilkins' office sent guidance to IRS units on handling tax-exempt organizations' applications, Wilkins visited President Obama in the Roosevelt Room at the White House. Attempting to infuse the meeting with additional significance, Fund writes that the Roosevelt Room is "traditionally the only part of the White House where a president discusses political matters."

Fund leaves out what the IRS has said about the meeting. A spokesman said that it was "an interagency meeting at the White House with the president and a range of senior-appointed officials from various government agencies" and that "no IRS matters or tax issues were discussed."

The conservative media have yet to establish any malfeasance here. But they're going to keep claiming that they have until they've fanned the scandal's dying coals back into a blaze. 

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John Fund
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