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IRS inquiry

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Steven Miller’s ouster as acting commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service is just the first step in restoring integrity and confidence in the agency in the wake of disclosures that some IRS agents routinely targeted conservative-leading groups seeking tax-exempt status.

Mr. Miller was not in charge when the scandal happened. He was, however, a deputy commissioner who oversaw the division that dealt with tax-exempt organizations.

He became aware that the heightened scrutiny had taken place almost two months before he misled Congress by failing to acknowledge the appalling practice in congressional testimony a year ago. His deception warrants his firing.

For nearly two years, the IRS subjected some nonprofits using the terms “tea party” and “patriots” to closer examination to determine if they were engaging in political activities outside the scope of what is permitted for a tax-exempt organization. The list of buzzwords that could elicit additional scrutiny was later expanded to include the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

Nearly 300 groups were targeted by agents in a Cincinnati, Ohio, enforcement bureau. Officials have denied any political motive in the scrutiny, but ongoing revelations make it clearer how the focus on right-wing groups delayed their applications, interfered with their ability to raise funds and curbed their work, while liberal organizations were given quicker approval.

It took the Richmond (Va.) Tea Party more than 500 pages to answer an initial 12-question inquiry from the IRS only to be followed by another 53 questions, according to a Wall Street Journal report. The group was granted tax-exempt status three years after it had first applied and spent $17,000 in legal fees, not to count time spent by volunteers compiling the data.

The Linchpins of Liberty, a Tennessee-based group, lost a $30,000 donation because the application for nonprofit status has been held up while the IRS sought information about donors, event participants, copies of the founder’s speeches and training manuals for the group started in 2010 “to mentor young people in conservative political philosophy,” the Journal reported. Linchpins is still awaiting word on the application.

The IRS even probed the reading habits of one organization that was asked to write a synopsis of a 350-page book its members had read.

The IRS put a hold on “tea party” applications from February 2010 to June 2012. During the same time organizations with liberal-sounding names that include works like “Progress” or “Progressive” were approved.

Some organizations withdrew their application while others waited up to three years for an IRS determination.

An inspector general’s report concluded that questions about donors and political affiliations of officers were inappropriate, which is an understatement. IRS officials contend there were no political motives behind the attempt by some agents trying to deal with an influx of applications for nonprofit status.

With Congress just beginning hearings on the practice, the FBI has also launched a criminal investigation that could include possible civil rights violations. The inquiries have to determine who was responsible for setting the criteria, who in upper level management knew about them and when.

The American people need to know whether it was a matter of bureaucrats in a single office run amok or an outrageous attempt to intimidate people based on political views that recalls the IRS abuses in the Nixon administration. Clear, strict guidelines have to be established to see it does not happen again.

Those responsible at all levels must be held accountable through criminal proceedings if warranted or disciplinary action at the least. “Someone made a conscious decision to harass and to hold up these requests for tax exempt status,” House Speaker John Boehner said. “I think we need to know who they are and whether they violated the law.”

The IRS has to be above politics. The American people need to be assured that its tax laws are being fairly and impartially enforced and are not used to target anyone based on speech or political persuasion.

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