What would you do if you opened a piece of mail addressed to you, only to discover that it was clearly intended for one of your neighbors? Most people would stop reading and simply forward it. It would seem right and moral – if not legally required – to avoid taking advantage of or otherwise exploiting the information in a letter intended for someone else.
Evidently, such ethical standards do not concern some politically engaged people at the IRS. Newly released emails show that Lois Lerner, the former head of the IRS division that processes applications for non-profit status, received in the mail an invitation to a tax-related seminar intended for Sen. Chuck Grassley, the Iowa Republican who is a former chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. Lerner's invitation and Grassley's were somehow inserted into the wrong envelopes and thus switched for delivery.
|It's very troubling that a simple clerical mix-up could get a taxpayer immediately referred for an IRS exam.|
Instead of merely forwarding Grassley's invitation, however, Lerner instead showed it to, and discussed it with, at least one co-worker. She asked that co-worker by email whether it should be referred for potential audit. Lerner said she worried the seminar’s sponsor was “inappropriately offering to pay for his wife. Perhaps we should refer to Exam?”
Her co-worker, clearly also familiar with the letter's contents, set her straight on the law, explaining that such an arrangement would not be illegal as long as Grassley reported his wife's reimbursement on his taxes. He recommended against initiating an investigation, although he pointed out that if Grassley attended the event, they could revisit the matter.
Neither Grassley nor his wife attended the event in question, and there is no indication that any IRS investigation ever took place. But it isn't hard to see why Grassley is upset. “It’s very troubling that a simple clerical mix-up could get a taxpayer immediately referred for an IRS exam without any due diligence from agency officials,” he said Wednesday.
Lerner is the central figure in the IRS targeting scandal. Her division forced hundreds of conservative non-profit applicants to fill out lengthy questionnaires, asked intrusive, and in some cases illegal, questions of them, and endlessly delayed their applications. When questioned by Congress about the matter, she invoked her constitutional right to avoid self-incrimination.
More recently, it was discovered that Lerner's hard drive conveniently crashed and was then destroyed 10 days after House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp requested copies of all correspondence related to another suspicious IRS targeting scheme - this time of five large donors to conservative nonprofit groups. Camp's letter, which caused the IRS to drop its plans, was the first indication that the committee was aware the agency was singling out conservatives for special treatment.
This incident does nothing to dispel the idea that Lerner and others at IRS intentionally and illegally targeted conservatives. And perhaps most prominent of the consequences is growing public support for an independent prosecutor, as well as increasing enthusiasm for abolishing the IRS and canceling the 16th Amendment that gave it birth. That can’t happen too soon.