Ethics Complaint: 9 Senators Involved in IRS Targeting

Tuesday, 03 Jun 2014 12:56 PM

By Melissa Clyne

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Nine Democratic U.S. senators have been breaking the law, improperly interfering with the IRS, since the Supreme Court ruled on the Citizens United case in 2010, according to an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal.

Bradley Smith and David Keating of the Center for Competitive Politics, a First Amendment rights political organization, write that Democrats are working to stifle the free speech of conservative groups.

Their organization this week filed a complaint with the Senate Select Committee on Ethics asking for an investigation into nine senators it says attempted "to use the IRS to advance a partisan, electoral agenda."

The senators named in the complaint are Charles Schumer of New York, Carl Levin of Michigan, Richard Durbin of Illinois, Michael Bennet of Colorado, Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, Al Franken of Minnesota, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, Jeff Merkley of Oregon, and New Mexico’s Tom Udall.

After the 2010 Citizens United decision — which found that the First Amendment prohibits the government from restricting political spending by corporations, associations, or labor unions — "Democrats adopted a campaign strategy of attempting to squelch the speech of conservative groups," Smith and Keating wrote.

Schumer immediately tried, unsuccessfully, to pass legislation known as the DISCLOSE  Act, which would have required independent groups to disclose the names of contributors who give more than $10,000 for use in political campaigns, The Washington Post reported in 2012.

Schumer explained the legislation "would make targeted speakers 'think twice' before speaking out," according to the Journal.

When the DISCLOSE Act failed to gain traction, Durbin pressured then-IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman, on his official letterhead, to examine the tax status of conservative nonprofit Crossroads GPS. According to Smith and Keating, Durbin later told Fox News that he wanted the organization investigated because "they were boastful about how much money they were going to raise and beat Democrats with."

And despite Levin being repeatedly warned — by IRS Deputy Commissioner for Services and Enforcement Steven T. Miller — that he was not entitled to "confidential, nonprofit tax return information," Levin continued to request it, according to the complaint.

The senators "pressured the IRS to undertake income-tax investigations of specific organizations, to find that specific organizations were in violation of the law, to reach predetermined results pertaining to pending applications by individual organizations for nonprofit status, and to adopt specific regulatory interpretations and policies to further their campaign goals," Smith and Keating wrote.

While senators are permitted to "inquire about agency practices and operations … they cross an ethical line when they interfere in pending tax exemption applications or pressure an agency to investigate or prosecute specific organizations."

In 2012, the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration began investigating allegations that the IRS targeted conservative groups’ tax exempt status following the GOP’s rout in the 2010 midterm elections, according to a column in  USA Today.

In May 2013, the Inspector General released its report showing there had in fact been "inappropriate targeting of the president's political opponents," and certain groups’ applications for tax exemption had been purposely delayed.

"The attempt to silence opponents through legislation may be ugly, but such hardball politics are not a violation of Senate ethics rules," according to Smith and Keating. "After failing to pass DISCLOSE, however, the senators in our complaint began a pattern of improper conduct aimed at pressuring the IRS to harass and investigate their political opponents."

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