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Sherman Says: Ethical meltdown at the IRS is an insult to all Americans

BUFFALO — Reaction to “inappropriate” activity, within the Internal Revenue Service, goes beyond partisan sniping and should make followers of all political parties demand answers, as well as reform.

On Friday, the IRS apologized for what it acknowledged as “inappropriate” targeting of conservative political groups. Agency officials placed the blame on low-level employees, saying no high-level officials were aware of the actions. Forgive me, but that sounds like a remake of the Watergate scandal, 40 years ago.

President Barack Obama said that such selective scrutiny was “outrageous” and that he became aware of the controversy, via news reports.

“I’ve got no patience with it,” he said. “I will not tolerate it and we will find out exactly what happened.”

Last week, NBC reported that the IRS targeted conservative groups with the words “tea party” or “patriot” in their names. The Washington Post reported that the IRS also targeted nonprofit organizations that criticized the government and sought to educate Americans about the United States Constitution. The IRS story is a “political gift to the Republican Party,” according to NBC’s First Read team.

It’s not a gift to anyone. It’s an insult to all of us.

A draft report stated that senior IRS officials knew agents were targeting tea party groups, as early as 2011, according to the Associated Press. The treasury department’s inspector general for tax administration is expected to release the final report, this week. The investigation has been plodding along for a year.

“If, in fact, IRS persons engaged in the kind of practices that have been reported on and were intentionally targeting conservative groups, then that’s outrageous and there’s no place for it,” Obama said. “They have to be held fully accountable.”

Step away from the political opportunities created by this flub. Ignore the temptation to blame it all on some deliberate scheme to discriminate against conservative groups, in favor of more left-leaning organizations. Don’t assume there is a conspiracy against conservative thinkers.

The real issue here is that employees of a federal agency were allegedly making policy decisions, based on ideology. The groups they singled out are at the opposite end of the Obama administration, making the rush to judgment that much more likely.

We should all be infuriated that these actions took place, at all. If the allegations prove to be true, this ethical meltdown will have an extensive ripple effect. Only a thorough investigation will expose who was at fault. Surely, this was not a scheme put together at the water cooler, by a couple of clerks. Who else knew about it? Who gave it the OK?

It’s possible the IRS has ballooned into such an overgrown agency that targeting certain groups – any groups – could be concealed, at will. That does not excuse the complicity of senior staff members.

In a system overflowing with loopholes, it appears the controversy stems from the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010, which allowed corporations to contribute to political campaigns. It also meant that “social welfare organizations” organized under Section 501(c)(3) of the tax code could raise an unlimited amount of money and spend it on politics. Unlike political action committees, these groups are not required to list their donors.

These groups spent at least $309 million on the last election, not including millions more spent on political activities that do not have to be reported, according to the Baltimore Sun.

What will come of all this remains to be seen, but more oversight and stricter IRS guidelines should be the primary goal. While campaign financing reform will be a major talking point, we cannot forget the damage done to the public’s trust in Washington.

Who is to blame is not as important as how people in authority were allowed to abuse the power with which they were entrusted.

David Sherman is the managing editor of Bee Group Newspapers and a columnist for the Weekly Independent Newspapers of Western New York. Opinions expressed here are those of the author. He can be reached at

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