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July 8, 2013
Guest Opinion: Look closer for real scandal in Issa's hearings

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(July 8 -- By Bruce Maiman, Special to The Bee)

The alleged IRS targeting of tea party groups is another sad example of a missed opportunity, though not the one you might think.

Darrell "Desperately Seeking Scandal" Issa, the Vista Republican who chairs the House Oversight & Government Reform Committee, continues to search for evidence proving White House involvement. It doesn't exist, nor did the IRS target only conservative nonprofit groups.

Documents obtained by the Associated Press last month showed that, along with "tea party" and "9/12," the IRS list of keywords that triggered greater scrutiny included "Paying National Debt," "Green Energy Organizations," "Progressive," "Occupy," "Healthcare legislation" and "Medical Marijuana."

Complete transcripts of committee interviews with IRS employees reveal that the supervisor responsible for scrutinizing tea party groups was a conservative Republican who ruled out both targeting and White House involvement.

Were conservative groups targeted more often? Of course. There were more of them. "The vast majority of these groups wasn't matched nearly as much on the liberal side," former Kentucky secretary of state Trey Grayson told the Cincinnati Enquirer.

Naturally, conservatives wanting blood are in denial. The inspector general testified that conservative groups were singled out for abuse, they'll say. But in both his May audit and testimony, Treasury investigator J. Russell George "never affirmed that progressive groups were sought out as well," the AP reported. He only told lawmakers he had recently found lists suggesting other "political factors." He gave no specifics.

The specifics came from the AP's report showing that liberal groups were indeed targeted.

A ProPublica investigation of more than 100 applications from groups seeking nonprofit status found that not only were they deliberately vague in how they said they'd spend their donations, but some promised they wouldn't get involved in politics and then did exactly that.

Groups promising to spend no money anywhere in the election process were spending more than half their dollars on TV ads for candidates, direct-mail campaigns, campaign ads posted to their YouTube accounts and for donations to political committees.

These tax-exempt applications are filled out under penalty of perjury, yet groups were committing perjury "again and again," ProPublica noted, and the majority of these groups were conservative organizations backing Republican candidates.

With his committee's enormous subpoena power, why didn't Issa find any of this out? Or did he purposely bury evidence that would undermine his witch hunt? He refused to release full transcripts of IRS testimony. The committee's senior Democrat, Elijah Cummings, released them. Issa issued only interview snippets better suited for political purpose than for a purposeful pursuit of the truth. And he arrogantly called White House spokesman Jay Carney a "paid liar"?

What Issa and fellow lawmakers should address is the blatant abuse of this nonprofit 501(c)(4) status by countless lobbyists and operatives who use these tax-exempt organizations as political slush funds to conceal campaign money.

Originally, Congress reserved 501(c)(4) status for groups operating "exclusively for the promotion of social welfare." But in 1959, a Treasury Department regulation changed the word "exclusively" to "primarily," thereby opening the door to political spending. No one has ever defined what "primarily" means, leaving the IRS to haphazardly decide based on a Treasury Department regulation that was trumping a congressionally mandated statute.

Congress should change it back to "exclusively," so that no one with a political agenda can play footsie with the IRS. No more political targeting. Voilà, less government.

But such reform would also yield more sunlight. Without access to 501(c)(4) groups, political donors would have to donate to so-called 527 groups, which can be very political but must disclose their donors.

Donors to 501(c)(4) organizations are anonymous. Why? It dates back to a 1958 Supreme Court ruling. Alabama sued to force the NAACP, which had 501(c)(4) status, to disclose its donors. The court sided with the NAACP, agreeing that identifying donors would put them at risk of reprisal and threats.

That made sense back then, but now? Karl Rove cited that Supreme Court case in defending his organization, Crossroads GPS, against attempts to reveal donors. Rove's super PAC has spent more money on elections than any other 501(c)(4) nonprofit.

With the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision in 2010, political funding to such groups has exploded. "Dark money" is everywhere. House Republicans especially oppose any disclosure reforms, perhaps because of the more than $256 million spent by these nonprofits on campaign ads in 2012, 84 percent came from conservative groups, according to the Federal Election Commission.

Why bite the hand that feeds you?

Issa could spearhead calls for reform, and Republicans could take well-deserved credit. They won't. Guaranteed, they'll use this faux scandal in a 2014 campaign narrative against liberal big government, despite evidence to the contrary.

Just goes to show, when presented with two options, lawmakers will always choose the wrong one because they're more interested in serving themselves than serving the electorate. That's the real scandal.

Bruce Maiman is a former radio host who lives in Rocklin. Reach him at brucemaiman@gmail.com

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