Shame on the Journal for ‘Lame’ Editorial That Tried To Shame the IRS

June 23rd, 2014 · No Comments · journalism, tax policy

By Denise Tessier

The Albuquerque Journal’s editorial board used ridicule to try to shame the Internal Revenue Service with Saturday’s shallow editorial, “Lame IRS excuse should be good for all taxpayers” (June 21). But sadly, in doing so, the Journal should be ashamed of itself.

The springboard for the editorial was the June 14 Associated Press story, “IRS lost emails by official in tea party probe,” which revealed a 2011 crash of the computer belonging to Lois Lerner, head of the division processing tax-exempt status applications during the time of alleged improprieties, and the resulting loss of her emails.

The AP story said Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp was outraged, to the point that the Michigan Republican said, “There needs to be an immediate investigation and forensic audit by Department of Justice as well as the inspector general.”

Keep in mind that Ways and Means is one of three GOP-led congressional committees investigating the IRS over its handling of tax exempt applications from 2010 to 2012, plus the Justice Department and the IRS inspector general already are investigating.

As an editorial topic, the missing emails development was low-hanging-fruit – emails lost during investigation! The computer crash was years before the investigations commenced. And the Journal editorial chose to compare the loss to a child’s “dog ate my homework” excuse, which it characterized as “lame”.

The editorial neglected to acknowledge what had been reported in the story: that the IRS said technicians went to great lengths to recover the emails and sent the crashed computer to a forensic lab run by the agency’s criminal investigations unit. It also failed to mention information from a follow-up story, which ran the day of the editorial, in which the current IRS commissioner explained to Ways and Means that in 2011, the IRS had a policy of backing up emails on computer tapes, but the tapes were recycled every six months; Lerner’s hard drive also was recycled.

It also failed to mention this information from the first story, much of which was repeated in the second story:

The IRS was able to generate 24,000 Lerner emails from the 2009 to 2011 because Lerner had copied in other IRS employees. The agency said it pieced together the emails from the computers of 82 other IRS employees. . . .

. . .The IRS said in a statement that more than 250 IRS employees have been working to help congressional investigations, spending nearly $10 million to produce more than 750,000 documents.

Overall, the IRS said it is producing a total of 67,000 emails to and from Lerner, covering the period from 2009 to 2013.

By the way, in the middle of those paragraphs, where I have placed the ellipses (…), the AP also had inserted this graph:

But an untold number (of emails) are gone. Camp’s office said the missing emails are mainly ones to and from people outside the IRS, “such as the White House, Treasury, Department of Justice, FEC, or Democrat offices.”

Notice that the GOP investigator, Camp, is quoted as claiming he somehow can identify the senders and recipients of the missing emails – even though they are missing. He claimed that they include the White House and “Democrat offices.” The story does not offer explanation as to why Lerner would send emails to “Democrat offices” and not Republicans ones, indicating the reporter let Camp’s comment slide without question.

Four days later, the Journal published four paragraphs on page A3 of a an AP story that appeared to debunk Camp’s claim about the White House. The brief story quoted White House spokesman Jay Carney as saying all email communications between Lerner and executive office personnel were searched and, “We found zero emails.” The story said the search did uncover three emails in which a third party emailed both Lerner and executive office staff: one was spam and the other two were from an individual seeking tax assistance. All of this, Carney said, has been turned over to congressional investigators.

But back to the editorial. It ran the same day as the Ways and Means follow-up, which the Journal headlined “IRS chief refuses to apologize; Republicans on panel skeptical.”

The second paragraph of that AP story is worth noting here:

Instead (of apologizing), Commissioner John Koskinen accused the chairman of a powerful House committee of misleading the public by making false statements based on incomplete information.

Koskinen’s accusation is worth noting because it’s exactly what I might proffer as a description of the Journal’s editorial, which ignored and dismissed information that didn’t fit the Journal’s already-made-up conclusions. The editorial itself revealed that those Journal conclusions are:

  • That the IRS unfairly targeted conservative, Tea Party and Republican groups.
  • That if President Obama didn’t direct the actions of the IRS, then “Obama and his allies simply benefited while in a state of blissful ignorance. . .”

The Journal editorial revealed the first bulleted position – in line with the beliefs of Tea Party Republicans – because it blithely referred to “this gross abuse of power” in its last summary paragraph, not even bothering to use the word “alleged”. One would assume the editorial was referring to the actions of IRS agents – although it might refer to President Obama, considering the “blissful ignorance” quote in the second bullet point, which is directly from the editorial.

Both of these conclusions are in direct conflict with what is known about the IRS’ actions with regard to the handling of tax exempt groups, but which still has not been reported in the Journal. My colleague Arthur Alpert served up an excellent summary on this topic with a post in March.

And not much new has been revealed since this reportage from Bloomberg News, which I referred to in a post more than a year ago:

The Internal Revenue Service, under pressure after admitting it targeted anti-tax Tea Party groups for scrutiny in recent years, also had its eye on at least three Democratic-leaning organizations seeking nonprofit status.

One of those groups, Emerge America, saw its tax-exempt status denied, forcing it to disclose its donors and pay some taxes. None of the Republican groups have said their applications were rejected. (My emphasis added.)

And this was reported by ABC, again, more than a year ago:

The irony is that the IRS’s dragnet, which was intended to catch groups that might have been too engaged in political activity, hasn’t stopped the largest of these groups from exerting influence in the political sphere.

Two of the most influential 501(c)4s, Crossroads GPS, founded by Republican political operative Karl Rove, and Priorities USA, which was founded by former aides to President Obama, have been operating as nonprofits without disclosing their donors even though the IRS has yet to rule on their applications for 501(c)4 status.

What the Journal’s editorial this past week again failed to mention is that the IRS agents were simply trying to do their jobs, that is, to be on the look-out for political sounding names of groups trying to pass as “common good” and “general welfare” nonprofits.

Nor does the Journal mention that after the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision the IRS was deluged with nonprofit requests from groups with political-sounding names like the Tea Party (“Taxed Enough Already”) or “American Patriots Against Government Excess.”

And why would the Journal’s pronounced orchestrators of the IRS scrutiny – “Obama’s allies” – be “blissful” when the IRS has shut down Democrat groups, but not Republican-leaning ones? Again, this week’s editorial was blithe in its proclamations.

In short, the Journal editorial echoed the taunting tone the GOP itself has been employing during these many investigations, investigations that, as mentioned before, have cost the IRS (and taxpayers) $10 million and have added exponentially to the workload of an agency already saddled with extra work via Citizens United and – equally if not more importantly – is charged with administering the Affordable Care Act.

The Journal’s taunts in the latest editorial took the form of ridiculing Lois Lerner for the lost emails and characterizing the IRS as having “whined” about supplying congress with documents, and it ended with this:

Investigators with the three congressional committees, the Justice Department and the IRS inspector general who are looking into this gross abuse of power should address the “computer crash ate my homework” excuse with two letters of their own: b and s.

It dovetails with the tone of the June 20 Ways and Means hearing, where, after Koskinen gave an opening statement, Chairman Camp responded with the complaint that, “What I didn’t hear in that was an apology to this committee,” according to the AP. “I don’t think an apology is owed,” the commissioner replied.

That was how the hearing started.

According to the AP:

The IRS commissioner also dismissed Camp’s call for a special prosecutor to investigate, saying it would be “a monumental waste of taxpayer funds.”

Then, after the commissioner explained the policy of recycling backed-up emails every six months, and the recycling of Lerner’s hard drive, former vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan, Republican from Wisconsin, basically called Koskinen a liar. From the AP story:

“I am sitting here listening to this testimony. I just, I don’t believe it,” said Ryan. “That’s your problem. Nobody believes you.”

When Koskinen objected, Ryan cut him off: “I don’t believe you.”

Koskinen came out of retirement in December to take over the IRS. Previously, he served in other positions under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. According to the AP, he told the committee:

I have a long career. That’s the first time anybody has said they do not believe me.

To get an idea of the feigned effrontery that passed for discourse at this hearing, check out this C-span video in which Rep. Charles Boustany, Republican from Louisiana, blasted Koskinen for failing to inform the committee that the hard drive was going to be scrubbed. Boustany continued to complain that the committee wasn’t given a heads up that the scrubbing/recycling was going to be done, even after being told by Koskinen that the action was taken three years before the committee even started its hearings.

And in a column that ran in the Journal June 19, commentator Jonah Goldberg criticized the AP for casting the hearing story, in his words, as: “The investigators — Republican lawmakers — are outraged.” The Journal headlined Goldberg’s column “Liberal media accepts IRS claims easily.”

That claim by Goldberg, who is not a journalist, is off the mark. The outrage is a key part of the story and the reporters are justified in picking up on it. Conversely, Goldberg’s column validates the other side of the coin, the argument that the Journal, as conservative media, accepts GOP claims easily, even when immaturely played.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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