It ranks as one of the worst government scandals of the past decade. Conservatives have been seething since 2013 over what they view as weaponization of the IRS to use against conservative groups for their political beliefs. The fight for justice and accountability has gone on ever since… with some on the other side insisting it was all fake news.
Catherine: This is a story of a government that weaponized against a private citizen in an effort to silence them on the basis of their political beliefs.
Sharyl: Some people might say, well this happened to you under the Obama Administration— there's a new sheriff in town. Hasn't all that changed?
Catherine: I wish I could tell you yes, but the answer is no. Nothing has changed. The swamp is very much in control.
You might say the whole IRS targeting scandal began with Texas Tea Party conservative Catherine Engelbrecht. In summer 2010, she applied to the IRS to start a nonprofit voting rights group: “True the Vote.” But instead of tax-exempt status from the IRS, what she got was an intimidating onslaught of unwanted attention from the feds.
Catherine: Starting in the summer of 2010, I was put through 23 either audits or investigations or inquiries by five different government agencies.
The IRS audited her business and personal tax returns. The FBI Domestic Terrorism Unit came knocking… six times. Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms showed up for inspections, as did OSHA the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the EPA in Texas.
Sharyl: And this had never happened to you before?
Catherine: No, no, prior to filing that paperwork with the True The Vote for non-profit status, prior to that, the only involvement we had ever had with government was paying our taxes.
Meantime, the IRS vetted her nonprofit application with a rigor more appropriate for a top secret background check.
Catherine: We were asked upwards of 300 questions that had far more to do with opposition research than it did with recognizing whether or not we were going to be responsible, financially. The IRS wanted to know every single Facebook posting I had ever posted, every tweet I had ever tweeted, everywhere I had ever spoken since the inception of the organization and to whom and where I had intended to speak for the following 12 months. That had no business being asked.
Engelbrecht complained— got a lawyer— and became the face of the IRS conservative targeting scandal. As for the face of the abusive federal agency, that was Lois Lerner—the IRS attorney and manager overseeing tax-exempt groups. In May of 2013, she was speaking at an annual meeting of nonprofit lawyers in Washington DC when the scandal broke wide open. Law professor Philip Hackney was at the meeting.
Hackney: So I was actually in the meeting where Lois Lerner talked about this.
Sharyl: What did she say in essence?
Hackney: It was an apology to the Tea Party. She apologized in that meeting.
Lerner made her stunning apology before the release of an Inspector General report detailing the misbehavior. She then clammed up and took the fifth before Congress. Lois
Lerner: I have not done anything wrong. I have not broken any laws. I have not violated any IRS rules or regulations. I have decided to follow my counsel’s advice and not testify or answer any of the questions today.
Engelbrecht sued the IRS and finally got nonprofit status for True the Vote after waiting three and a half years. But she continued her lawsuit against the IRS, demanding accountability. Meantime, the scandal widened. Congress subpoenaed thousands of Lois Lerner’s IRS emails yet they were destroyed… along with security logs, Lerner’s blackberry and her hard drive—which was shredded at a recycling center. America was torn between laughter and tears.
Sharyl: Hackney used to work in the IRS chief counsel’s office but left before the scandal. Today, he’s one of the few willing to publicly defend the tax agency amid Engelbrecht’s claims.
Sharyl: In a 23 month period she had 15 audits, investigations and inquiries from the federal government, including the IRS, which stopped as soon as she filed a lawsuit in the summer of 2013.
Hackney: I don't know the particular case and I can't really comment on her particular situation. Has the IRS ever been used in a problematic way? Probably so. I mean the Nixonian period is a problematic one. I never saw it used in that way and never felt uncomfortable with the people that I worked with.
Sharyl: They wanted to see was every Facebook post she'd ever made.
Hackney: I don't think they should have been asking for the Facebook post and that was part of what Lois talked to that day… was that they dialed those things back. They pulled those things away. They weren't correct questions to ask. But I know these people, they work hard every day. They really do. They're just like you and me. And are they going to make mistakes? Yes, but are they working their best to do their best every day? Absolutely.
He says new research shows that the IRS didn’t *only* target conservatives.
Hackney: They actually used the names of organizations like Occupy and Acorn. They were looking at liberal groups by name as well. And a number of them, it wasn't a small amount.
Sharyl: Maybe they were looking at those names to expedite and looking at conservative names to delay?
Hackney: But they didn’t. They took a long time with a number of those organizations as well. And in fact, they denied. The only organizations denied status during that time was a democratic women's group called Merge.
In 2014, the House held Lerner in contempt but the Obama Justice Department didn’t prosecute. Last September, the Trump Justice Department followed suit… denying Congressional requests to re-open a criminal probe. In October, Attorney General Jeff Sessions settled longstanding lawsuits filed by 469 conservative groups noting: “It is now clear that during the last Administration, the IRS began using inappropriate criteria to screen applications” that “disproportionately impacted conservative groups…There is no excuse for this conduct…” “this abuse of power will not be tolerated.” After five years and nearly two million dollars in attorney’s fees, Engelbrecht also finally settled her case in January. But it didn’t end the way she’d hoped.
Catherine: We wanted there to be some written codification that this could not happen to any other organization, to any other citizen, ever.
She didn’t get that assurance… or any money damages.
Catherine: This is a government weaponized against its people and they don't feel any responsibility to disclose what they've done. They act with impunity and it is very much a outwit, outplay, outlast. True The Vote was never supposed to be about left or right. It was supposed to be about principle and, naively, I thought that election integrity would be something that could be a very uniting effort. That we would have the opportunity to work with people from both sides of the aisle. I walked into a buzzsaw that I could have never imagined and I'm still paying the price for it.
The government wouldn’t agree to an interview but pointed out Engelbrecht did get something very rare from the IRS: an admission and an apology. The settlement statement reads in part: “The IRS admits that its treatment of Plaintiff…was wrong…the IRS expresses its sincere apology.”