Right now the IRS story looks stalled and confused. Congressional investigators are asking for documents—"The IRS is being a little slow," said a staffer—and interviewing workers. Pieces of testimony are being released and leaked, which has allowed one congressman, Democrat Elijah Cummings, to claim there's actually no need for an investigation, the story's over, the mystery solved.
When the scandal broke in early May, the Obama administration vowed to get to the bottom of it with an FBI investigation. Many of us were skeptical. There's a sign we were right.
On June 13, FBI Robert Director Robert Mueller testified before the House Judiciary Committee and was questioned by Rep. Jim Jordan (R., Ohio) about former tax-exempt office chief Lois Lerner's claim that the targeting of conservative groups was due to the incompetence of workers in the Cincinnati office.
Jordan: "What can you tell us—I mean you started a month ago, what can you tell us about this, have you found . . . the now-infamous two rogue agents, have you discovered who those people are?"
Mueller: "Needless to say, because it is under investigation, I can't give out any of the details."
Jordan: "Can you tell me . . . how many agents, investigators you've assigned to the case?"
Mueller: "Ah, may be able to do that, but I'd have to get back to you."
Jordan: "Can you tell me who the lead investigator is?"
Mueller: "Off the top of my head, no."
Jordan: "This is the most important issue in front of the country in the last six weeks, you don't know who's heading up the case, who the lead investigator is?"
Mueller: "Ah, at this juncture, no. . . . I have not had a recent briefing on it."
Jordan: "Do you know if you've talked to any of the victims—have you talked to any of the groups who were targeted by their government—have you met with any of the tea-party folks since May 14, 2013?"
Mueller: "I don't know what the status of the interviews are by the team that's on it."
Wow. He'd probably know something about the FBI's investigation of the IRS if he cared about it, if it had some priority or importance within his agency. This week an embarrassed Mr. Mueller was ready for questions from senators. There is an investigation, he said, and "over a dozen" agents have been assigned. Well, better than nothing.
Attorneys for the best-known of the targeted groups confirm that they've heard nothing. From the American Center for Law and Justice: "None of our clients have been contacted or interviewed by the FBI." From lawyer Cleta Mitchell: "I hear from people around the country, and no one has been contacted." All of which is strange. If the FBI were investigating a series of muggings, you'd hope they'd start by interviewing the people who'd been mugged.
Meanwhile a CNN poll shows the number of people who believe the targeting program was directed by the White House is up 10 points the past month, to 47%.
So things have gotten pretty confused, maybe because it's in the interest of a lot of people to confuse it.
Again, what is historic about this scandal, what makes it unique and uniquely dangerous, is that it is different in kind from previous IRS scandals. In the past it was always elite versus elite, power guys using the agency against other power guys. This scandal is different because it's the elite versus the people. It is an entrenched and fearsome power versus regular citizens.
The scandal broke, of course, when Lois Lerner deviously planted a question at a Washington conference. She was trying to get out ahead of a forthcoming inspector general's report that would reveal the targeting. She said that "our line people in Cincinnati who handled the applications" used "wrong" methods. Also "in some cases, cases sat around for a while." The Cincinnati workers "sent some letters out that were far too broad," in some cases even asking for contributors' names. "That's not appropriate."
Since that day, the question has been: Was the targeting of conservative groups in fact the work of incompetent staffers in Cincinnati, or were higher-ups in the Washington office of the IRS involved? Ms. Lerner said it was all Cincinnati.
But then the information cascade began. The Washington Post interviewed Cincinnati IRS workers who said everything came from the top. The Wall Street Journal reported congressional investigators had been told by the workers that they had been directed from Washington. Word came that one applicant group, after receiving lengthy and intrusive requests for additional information, including donor names, received yet another letter asking for even more information—signed by Lois Lerner.
Catherine Engelbrecht of True the Vote, which sought tax-exempt status, recently came into possession of a copy of a 20-month-old letter from the IRS's Taxpayer Advocate Service in Houston, acknowledging that her case had been assigned to an agent in Cincinnati. "He is waiting for a determination from their office in Washington," the advocate said. The agent was "unable to give us a timeframe" on when determination would be made.
The evidence is overwhelming that the Washington office of the IRS was involved. But who in Washington? How high did it go, how many were involved, how exactly did they operate?
Those are the questions that remain to be answered. That's what the investigations are about.
Rep. Cummings, having declared the mystery solved, this week released the entire 205-page transcript of an interview between congressional investigators and a frontline manager in the Cincinnati office. The manager, a self-described conservative Republican, was asked: "Do you have any reason to believe that anyone in the White House was involved in the decision to screen Tea Party cases?" The answer: "I have no reason to believe that."
There, said Mr. Cummings, case closed. But that testimony settles nothing. Nobody imagines the White House picked up a phone to tell IRS workers in Cincinnati to target their enemies. That, as they say, is not how it's done.
The frontline manager also said, in his interview, "I'll say my realm was so low down, and after the initial review of a case, which was, you know, within three days after assignment, I became less and less aware of what happened above me." He said he didn't do any targeting, but "I'm not in a position to discuss anybody else's intention but my own."
What investigators have to do now is follow the trail through the IRS in Washington, including political appointees.
Questions: Do the investigators have a list of everyone who worked in the executive office of the IRS commissioner? Have they contacted those people and asked when they learned of the targeting? What did they do when they learned? Who, if anyone, thwarted any attempts to stop it? And what about those bonuses the IRS is reportedly about to award its employees? How does that figure in?
Congress, including both its battling investigative committees, must get the answers to these questions.
The House speaker should make sure it's a priority. There's no sign the FBI will.