This is a strange story to write about, because we’re talking about a fairly clear-cut violation of the law, but we’ve grown so numb to Big Government ignoring its legal restraints – and the Obama Administration abusing power for political purposes – that it reads like the epilogue to a story that never really ended.
What we’ve got – according to a letter sent by House Oversight Committee chairman Darrell Issa and Subcommittee on Economic Growth, Job Creation, and Regulator Affairs chairman Jim Jordan to IRS Commissioner John Koskinen- is the IRS sending a million pages of information on tax-exempt organizations to the FBI, packed into 11 disks, as part of the Tea Party persecution. It was part of IRS scandal kingpin Lois Lerner’s effort to bring the Justice Department into the act, and work up criminal prosecutions of tax-exempt orgs allegedly involved in illegal political activities.
Most of the information included in this transfer was public knowledge. The legal problem facing the IRS is that 33 of the 12,000 tax returns included on these disks included confidential information, which the IRS is legally obliged to protect. Evidently these 33 organizations were not among those actively targeted by the IRS. The Wall Street Journal quotes a Justice Department official saying that the FBI didn’t make any use of the data, or review it in detail: “We informed the committee that the FBI did not review the disks except for the index and, to the best of our knowledge, neither the FBI nor the department used them for any investigative purpose. After learning last week that the disks contained protected confidential information, we returned our copies of the disks to the IRS and recommended that the committee do the same.”
Generally speaking, “whoopsie!” is not an effective defense for we, the peons, when we transgress any of the zillion rules governing our behavior. We don’t even know what all the rules are. We just hope some agency of the government doesn’t decide to roll one of its many bloodshot eyes in our direction and take notice of the infractions most of us are guilty of, at any given hour of any day. Broadly speaking, we should want every bureaucrat in Washington treating our confidential data like a sacred trust, scared to death about committing any breach of the public trust.
Issa and Jordan told IRS Commissioner Koskinen that the million pages of data forked over to the FBI by Lerner’s Tax Exempt Organizations Division “confirms suspicions that the IRS worked with the Justice Department to facilitate the potential investigation of nonprofit groups engaged in lawful political speech.” It’s awfully formal and polite of them to use the word “suspicions,” since their letter includes email excerpts from Lerner and other officials that make it pretty clear everyone involved was cheerfully facilitating those investigations. There’s plenty of the political skulduggery we’ve seen before in the IRS scandal, but also correspondence from people at Justice who seem sincerely convinced that criminal violations may have occurred, based on what the IRS was telling them.
One other problem outlined in the House Oversight letter is that they’re only hearing about these 21 disks now, but they should have been covered by a subpoena issued a year ago. Koskinen was asked to provide “a full and complete explanation as to why information about the 21 disks was withheld from the Committee for a year,” along with all documentation pertaining to the creation of these disks, and all correspondence between the IRS and other agencies concerning them.
Issa and Jordan reminded Koskinen that while he was not the active IRS commissioner while the scandal unfolded, the Oversight subpoena was reissued to him in February 2014, following his confirmation, and he is legally responsible to respond. “Your choice to withhold this highly relevant material obstructs the Committee’s ongoing oversight obligations – especially when this information implicates violations of federal law.”
Perhaps this is one of the legal violations that inspired Lois Lerner to invoke her Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination, rather than testifying. There’s no doubt that delaying tactics employed by Lerner and other officials have stretched the investigation out until it could be waved off as “old news,” in accordance with standard Obama Administration scandal protocols. “Oh yeah, by the way, we gave a million pages of taxpayer data to the FBI, and some of it was confidential” has a lot less impact when the admission comes a year after the investigation heats up.
As to any violation of federal law that might have occurred: it’s time for more than just “implications.” Who broke the law, what was the exact nature of their offense, and when can we expect prosecution? It’s quite clear that something contrary to the law occurred here; IRS officials will doubtless portray it as a slip-up, and the Justice Department has already played the “no harm, no foul” card by saying nobody looked at the protected information. But none of that excuses the violation, or the interesting decision to keep it under wraps for so long. Or should we dispense with the pretense that these restrictions are “laws” in the same sense as the legal burdens government places upon its citizens?