In Citizens United vs. FEC, the U.S. Supreme Court held in January 2012 that the federal government is prohibited from restricting independent political expenditures by businesses, associations and labor unions. The opinion allows such groups to spend unlimited sums of money on advocacy ads, but not direct contributions to candidate committees. It also set the American left off its rocker. What follows is a chronology of events that has set the American right off its rocker, too.
The immediate aftermath of Citizens United saw a worried president engage in a series of hard hitting speeches concerning the corrupting influence of money in politics and warning about a proliferation of newly formed, conservative groups seeking to take advantage of their expanded free speech rights. It was at some point shortly thereafter that the good folks at the Tax Exempt Division of the IRS began to slow-walk new non-profit applications from conservative organizations, according to a 2013 Inspector General's report.
This "additional scrutiny" phase delayed the approval of said applications until after the 2012 election. In fact, not a single "tea party" affiliated group received tax exempt approval over the course of 27 months. Of special interest to the IRS examiners were tea party associated groups opposed to the federal government's fiscal practices. IRS staff also flagged those groups dedicated to "mak[ing] America a better place to live."
Intentional delay was only part of the plan, however. Conservative activists were also singled out for audits and had their confidential information disclosed to left wing interest groups. One such example of the latter was the treatment afforded to the "National Organization for Marriage" — proponents of traditional marriage. The organization's application included a sampling of its major financial supporters, which is not an unusual request to fulfill, though the information is typically redacted by the IRS for privacy reasons. But the redaction failed to occur, and the names of all of NOFM's financial supporters suddenly appeared on the website of the pro-gay marriage group "Human Rights Campaign." Can you spell INTIMIDATION? Note: It is a federal offense (punishable by up to five years in prison) for anyone to publish private tax information. Cynical note: Raise your hand if you think even one IRS employee will serve time for this crime.
Now, fast forward to the past few weeks wherein we have seen the IRS admit that it "lost" the emails of retired IRS official Lois Lerner and at least six of her colleagues from 2009 to mid-2011. Seems the hard drives of the "chosen seven" crashed in 2011, then were recycled. IRS leadership knew about, but sat on, the critical information for nearly a year. And so two years of critical emails are (presumably) lost forever. This is the same Ms. Lerner who told Congress in sworn testimony that she did "nothing wrong," before invoking her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
An equally disturbing aspect of IRS arrogance is the agency's recent admission that it had selectively produced Ms. Lerner's surviving emails — despite two House Committee requests to produce all Lerner emails "regardless of subject matter." A private attorney exhibiting the same disregard for the law would face significant court imposed sanctions.
To be sure, President Obama has repeatedly sought to assure the American public that nothing of a nefarious nature was (is) at work here. Recall the president's initial explanation that the improper targeting was caused by a couple of "rogue" employees in the Cincinnati office. But the old Cincinnati narrative was instantly discredited when "River City" staff pointed the finger right back at IRS staff in Washington D.C. Nevertheless, the president really wants you to know that this illegal stunt had no direction or encouragement from his White House.
We may never get the truth as to how this embarrassing episode of government incompetence came about. But the foregoing facts are not in dispute: American citizens were targeted by a powerful government agency on account of their political opinions — an unforgivable sin in a democracy where freedom of speech is protected and valued.
Democratic party reaction has been muted, even defensive. The old "there's nothing there" mantra has been trotted out every time another new and relevant revelation comes to light. Come to think of it, this would be the type of scenario a young, community activist, Harvard Law professor would typically get excited about. After all, these citizens are victims.
Alas, these particular victims are tea party folks — an exception to the rule. Such is the way of selective progressive indignation circa 2014. Can you imagine the outrage if the shoe were on the other foot?
Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s column appears Sundays. The former Maryland governor and member of Congress is a partner at the law firm King & Spalding and the author of "Turn this Car Around" and "America: Hope for Change" — books about national politics. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.To respond to this commentary, send an email to email@example.com. Please include your name and contact information.