News Column

'Obama IRS' Conspiracy Theory Not Supported by Evidence

June 10, 2013

Stephen Stromberg


Republicans are increasingly emphatic in their insinuations that "the Obama IRS" has been involved in some kind of wide political conspiracy. But a Treasury Department inspector general, still the expert of record on the Internal Revenue Service targeting scandal, has said that the IRS story is one mainly of managerial incompetence, not partisan malice. Why? Evidence.

According to the inspector general's reconstruction of events, Lois Lerner, the head of the IRS tax-exempt department, found out in 2011 that members of her staff had been subjecting groups with conservative keywords in their names to extra scrutiny as they applied for tax-exempt status. At that point, she "immediately" ordered a stop to the practice and changed the department's guidelines. Hardly the reaction you'd expect from an agent of a conspiracy to target conservatives or of someone taking orders from puppet-masters above.

True, another form of targeting started up again after Lerner's orders. But that suggests mismanagement on Lerner's part -- the inspector general's conclusion -- and not some Obama administration plot. The available evidence also suggests that the top IRS leadership did not know about the targeting until May 2012, a year after Lerner found out and two years after it started. There is currently no evidence that the White House was involved at all until officials there heard about the inspector general's investigation a few months ago.

Maybe the conspiracy here was so intricate that its architects carefully cut Lerner out of it. Or maybe, anticipating some kind of scrutiny years later, she pretended to stop the targeting in 2011, despite the inspector general's finding that the reversion to targeting happened "without executive approval."

But neither of those scenarios is at all likely. Given what we know now, the story that best fits the facts is that IRS employees subordinate to Lerner -- in Washington or elsewhere -- were involved in some unforgivably stupid behavior, and those above them failed to keep an eye on it.

Although there is no evidence linking them to the decision to begin targeting conservative groups, the facts on the table do not fully absolve Lerner or her superiors. They at least should have told Congress about the targeting as soon as they found out. Still, if you hear implicit comparisons between this IRS scandal and Richard Nixon's corrupt bullying, you should take such unmoored insinuations for what they're worth.


Stephen Stromberg writes for The Washington Post.

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