Conservative Media Try To Undercut Shaheen Campaign With Last-Minute Conspiracy-Mongering

UPDATE: The Brown campaign promoted the Fox News segment in a November 4 press release. The campaign used the headline, “ICYMI: FOX AND FRIENDS ON JEANNE SHAHEEN'S CLOSE INVOLVEMENT WITH IRS SCANDAL,” and posted video and transcript of Fox's coverage.

Right-wing media are disingenuously claiming Democratic incumbent Sen. Jeanne Shaheen's (NH) widely-publicized support of basic campaign finance rules is “bombshell” evidence that she urged the “targeting” of conservatives.

Just hours before election day, the Daily Caller released a report alleging that Shaheen was “principally involved in a plot with Lois Lerner and President Barack Obama's political appointee at the IRS to lead a program of harassment against conservative nonprofit groups during the 2012 election.” As evidence, it pointed to the fact that Shaheen had corresponded with the IRS lawyer William J. Wilkins about decades-old campaign finance regulations.

The Daily Caller added that a “major conservative super PAC” included Shaheen's name in a Freedom of Information Act request pertaining to the IRS. “If YOUR NAME is the search term that the conservative super PAC uses in its bid to get public information,” writes Patrick Howley, “then you just might be involved in something.”

Other right-wing media sources rapidly seized on the opportunity to attack Shaheen. Fox News, which has relentlessly promoted the campaign of her challenger, former Fox News employee Scott Brown, trumpeted the claim as “a death sentence” for Shaheen's Senate hopes.

But the Daily Caller's piece does not demonstrate a scandal of any kind and appears only to be repackaging already-reported information about a benign exchange of letters between several Democratic senators and IRS attorneys.

It's no secret that Senate Democrats asked the IRS to clearly define how much money 501(c)4 nonprofits, which gain tax exemption as “social welfare” organizations, are allowed to spend on election-related activities. In 2012, Democratic Senators, including Shaheen, released a letter publicly requesting that the IRS offer more specific “administrative guidance” on campaign finance restrictions for nonprofit groups. The request received media attention at the time, and IRS lawyer William J. Wilkins responded to Shaheen and others with a letter describing existing campaign finance rules:

“These regulations have been in place since 1959,” Wilkins wrote. “We will consider proposed changes in this area as we work with Tax-Exempt and Government Entities and the Treasury Department's Office of Tax Policy to identify tax issues that should be addressed” in designing new regulations and “guidance.”

“I hope this information is helpful,” Wilkins wrote. “I am sending a similar response to your colleagues. If you have questions, please contact me or have your staff contact Cathy Barre at (202) 622-3720.”

Right-wing media have repeatedly used unfounded conspiracy theories to prop up the IRS “scandal” after the allegations that the IRS solely investigated conservative groups' campaign spending began to crumble. Meanwhile, the political influence of money spent by outside groups has soared to record levels in the 2014 election cycle.