IRS abuses need a full investigation

Guest Editorial
You can bet Internal Revenue Service officials are hoping they can quash this scandal with the simple explanation they issued last week: The aggressive scrutiny the IRS directed against conservative groups, they said, was nothing more than the work of low-level staffers who lost their way.

The Internal Revenue Service apologized Friday for excessively scrutinizing and improperly delaying applications for tax-exempt status from groups with “tea party” or “patriot” in their names.

IRS official Lois G. Lerner, who oversees tax-exempt groups, said it was a misguided response to a flood of applications between 2010 and 2012.

That isn’t going to fly. The American people deserve a thorough independent investigation of this disgraceful affair.

It’s too soon to say the IRS targeted right-wing groups for partisan reasons and not for matters of expediency, as IRS officials contend, but the practice was outrageous. It recalls the corruption of the Nixon administration when the president ordered the IRS to audit the tax returns of opponents on his “enemies list.”

There already is enough suspicion about the IRS to stoke fear and mistrust. It is a mammoth tax-collection agency with tremendous legal powers.

The IRS admission that it mistreated conservative groups validates the complaints of tea party activists who said all along their groups were unfairly scrutinized. It also fuels fears of other groups from both the right and the left that Washington is out to get them.

IRS officials said the agency stopped targeting conservative groups last year and appropriate policy changes were enacted. But information about the abusive practice didn’t become public until last week.

Rep. Darrell Issa, chairman of a congressional investigative panel, asked a federal watchdog group to investigate the IRS last year after he accused it of targeting conservative groups.

The Associated Press reported Saturday that the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration review of the scandal found Lerner knew about it two years ago. Before he left his post last year, IRS Commissioner Doug Shulman denied the agency was targeting conservative groups.

Partisan or just plain stupid, the IRS practice of targeting right-wing groups undermines its credibility and raises serious questions about the Treasury Department and the White House. Only an independent investigation can determine why the deplorable practice ever was put in place.