New Castle News

June 18, 2013

Our Opinion: IRS probe may reveal multiple problems

By Staff
New Castle News

NEW CASTLE — When a murky scandal is investigated, the goal is to obtain clarity, as well as to right any wrongs.

But reaching such a conclusion can be a tortuous process. And so it is with the current probe of allegations of political targeting by the Internal Revenue Service.

The investigation originated with claims that IRS agents based in Cincinnati were singling out conservative political groups for unfair treatment in 2012. There have been allegations this was being done to benefit the re-election efforts of President Obama that year.

The jury is still out on this question, but the congressional investigation so far has failed to document any direct link between the Obama administration and IRS actions. Instead, the story may be a bit more complex than that.

We do know that IRS officials in Washington were involved to some degree in the handling of these conservative groups, frequently ones that had “tea party” in their names.

The Associated Press reported this week that Holly Paz, who had been a top deputy in the branch of the IRS that handles organizations with tax-exempt status, told congressional investigators that she reviewed 20 to 30 applications of these groups from her Washington office.

She said she took this action after learning staff in Cincinnati had stopped working on them.

These organizations had applied for tax-exempt status from the government, which theoretically makes it easier for them to take donations. In some cases, tea party groups were put on hold for a year or more waiting for IRS decisions.

Superficially, this sounds like deliberate sabotage aimed at these organizations. But Paz presented a scenario that looked more like a combination of bureaucratic incompetence and genuine uncertainty about the proper way to handle these groups under arcane and complicated laws created by Congress.

According to Paz, field agents contacted Washington for guidance on what to do with “tea party” groups, which IRS officials in the capital interpreted as meaning any politically motivated organization, regardless of leanings. Somehow, IRS brass in the nation’s capital believed the tax-exempt applications by these groups were being processed in the field office. But in reality, they had been set aside while Cincinnati staff was waiting for direction from Washington.

If this is true, the IRS problem is less a political scandal and more of a management and communications debacle. Although the investigation is not complete, the probe so far suggests matters other than political bias are at work here.

And one of these is a federal tax code that grows increasingly complex — too complex, it seems, even for folks who work at the IRS. In this scandal investigation, Congress can’t shirk its responsibilities.