Media Misunderstanding Of IRS Story Triggering Baseless Links To Washington Office

Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

Major media outlets are misinterpreting testimony from a former high-ranking Internal Revenue Service official to baselessly suggest that Washington, D.C.-based officials were involved in the improper targeting of conservative groups seeking non-profit status.

Those misinterpretations are based on an apparent confusion on the part of journalists over what made the actions of the Cincinnati-based IRS officials who engaged in that scrutiny improper.

On June 16, several journalists were apparently granted access to review the transcript of an interview the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee conducted with Holly Paz, a former Washington-based manager in the IRS tax-exempt unit. The access was likely granted under the auspices of committee chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA), who has been accused of selectively leaking misleading, out-of-context portions of committee interviews in order to damage the Obama administration.

Reporting on the Paz interview, several outlets seized on Paz's statement that she had, in the words of the Associated Press, "reviewed 20 to 30 applications," and falsely claimed this contradicted administration statements that the improper IRS activity had been conducted by IRS officials in Cincinnati.

The Associated Press wrote that Paz's assertion "contradicts initial claims by the agency that a small group of agents working in an office in Cincinnati were solely responsible for mishandling the applications"; ABC's Good Morning America reported (via Nexis) that her "testimony contradicts IRS claims that agents in the Cincinnati field office were solely responsible for targeting those groups"; and the CBS Morning News reported (via Nexis) that Paz said "she was involved in targeting Tea Party groups." 

But it is not improper for IRS officials to review the applications of groups seeking non-profit status - in fact, that is their job. The reason the IRS has been criticized is because they used politically slanted criteria to select conservative, but not progressive, groups to receive additional scrutiny. Specifically, the IRS gave additional scrutiny to groups with "tea party," "patriot," and "9/12" in their names. And that criteria was developed by a screening agent from the Cincinnati office, according to excerpts from a congressional interview included in a memo from the Democratic staff of the Oversight Committee.

Paz said she was unaware of these improper procedures, according to the AP:

Paz, however, provided no evidence that senior IRS officials ordered agents to target conservative groups or that anyone in the Obama administration outside the IRS was involved.

Instead, Paz described an agency in which IRS supervisors in Washington worked closely with agents in the field but didn't fully understand what those agents were doing. Paz said agents in Cincinnati openly talked about handling "tea party" cases, but she thought the term was merely shorthand for all applications from groups that were politically active - conservative and liberal.

Paz further testified that when her superior, Lois Lerner, the Washington, D.C.-based director of exempt organizations, became aware that the Cincinnati office was using an improper set of key words to select groups for additional review, Lerner ordered the process stopped.

Not only is this testimony inconsistent with media claims that Paz acknowledged participating in the wrongdoing for which the IRS has been criticized, it actually directly contradicts those claims. This sort of sloppy reporting has surely played a role in misleading the American people into thinking that the White House ordered the targeting of Tea Party groups.

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CBS, Associated Press, ABC News
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