Come On, We've Got to Find Some Way to Tie Obama to the IRS Scandal

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
May 24 2013 12:57 PM

Come On, We've Got to Find Some Way to Tie Obama to the IRS Scandal

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Austan Goolsbee, former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under President Obama, testifies before the Congressional Joint Economic Committee on February 28, 2013 in Washington, DC.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The Washington Examiner does some of the best conservative investigative reporting in this business, so it's surprising to see this misfire in its pages. The ominous headline by Richard Pollock tells us that "some [Ed - some?] wonder if IRS scandal began with Goolsbee remark on Koch taxes," and the lede at least is interesting. Treasury "completed but never released a 2011 law enforcement probe of White House economic advisor Austan Goolsbee," because Goolsbee referred to Koch Industries as one of "a series of entities that do not pay corporate income tax." How did he know? Six Republican senators asked the IG to investigate.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

IG spokesman David Barnes refused to discuss the report, saying "unfortunately, we can't provide any information on investigations."
But in his Aug. 20, 2011, email, Carney told Koch Industries in the August 2011 email that the report "would now be available through a Freedom of Information (FOIA) request."
Koch filed a FOIA request, but the IG office refused to acknowledge the report's existence, saying in a Sept. 12, 2011, letter that it "can neither admit nor deny the existence of responsive records."
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That's unsettling, and that FOIA should be answered, but ... wait, what's this Pollock says at the end?

Despite the veil of secrecy surrounding the report, Goolsbee claimed in a May 14 tweet that his information came from an article in a Florida newspaper that included no confidential tax information.

Pollock doesn't link the tweet, but here it is:

Yep, Goolsbee screwed up. He read a (December 2003!) article about Bill Koch, who's not a donor to any huge political groups. Koch's entities didn't pay any corporate income tax. This reveals that Goolsbee made a lazy mistake, and smeared David Koch, which led to an IG investigation. Did the IG investigation find that Goolsbee was leaked tax information, or that he was reading an article somebody had passed on to him? We should be able to read that report.

But that's not the scandal Pollock was hinting at here. This is the scandal.

[D]uring the same period when Goolsbee made his remark, IRS Exempt Organization officials were demanding conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status "explain your relationship to Americans for Prosperity."
The tax agency demanded that the conservative groups disclose "copies of any contracts with AFP ... describe the training program by AFP ... and provide copies of the training materials" as a prerequisite of gaining tax exempt status.

The word "during" does a lot of work here. Goolsbee made his remark on Aug. 27, 2010. According to the IG report, that was five months after the IRS started to compile a cheat sheet for investigating conservative applications. It was in March 2010 that "the Determinations Unit Group Manager asked a specialist to search for other Tea Party or similar organizations’ applications in order to determine the scope of the issue." On Aug. 12, the notorious "Be on the Look-Out" (BOLO) document was finished. So unless the Obama administration posessed a time machine—you never know where that stimulus money went—Goolsbee's quote couldn't have "sparked" the investigation.

There's a lot of confusion-for-a-purpose steaming around this story. The larger 501s that basically practice politics, not social welfare—Crossroads, American Bridge, AFP, True the Vote, etc.—are yoking their struggle to the struggle of tiny organizations that the Obama administration never criticized.

UPDATE: Kim Strassel, who was on the "Obama criticizes Romney donors and thus has an enemies list" beat last year, chimes in with more stories of political activists done wrong.

None of this proves that Mr. Obama was involved in the IRS targeting of conservative nonprofits. But it does help explain how we got an environment in which the IRS thought this was acceptable.

We're just going to keep hearing that meme until it sinks in, I suppose.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter.