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Tue., May 14, 2013, midnight

Editorial: IRS scandal could hinder transparency in elections

Friday was a dark day for government oversight and for the hope that more light could be shed on political contributions.

The Internal Revenue Service acknowledged that some groups identified using search terms such as “tea party” and “patriot” were singled out during efforts to enforce a law that grants organizations tax-exempt status as long as they aren’t engaged in politics. Right now, this can’t be understood as anything but a biased attack based on political beliefs.

If such is the case, heads need to roll.

In addition, congressional hearings and investigations must be launched to see where the idea came from. To date, there is no evidence that this rose above staff level at the tax agency, but the American people need assurance this was not part of a campaign to suppress political opposition.

Republicans immediately blasted the revelation. Democrats have begun to join the chorus. President Barack Obama on Monday denounced the targeting of conservative groups, saying the IRS cannot afford to be perceived as “anything less than neutral in terms of how they operate.”

Thus far, it looks as if neutrality was not the guiding principle behind the actions of the Cincinnati field office in charge of overseeing the 501(c)(4) applications. That’s the tax-exempt status nonprofit groups are granted when engaged in “social welfare” activities. The office was flooded with such applications after the U.S. Supreme Court abolished the limits on independent political contributions from individuals, corporations and unions.

The Citizens United ruling – coupled with subsequent changes in election laws – paved the way for deep-pocketed contributors to give to super-PACS without having to disclose their names. These super-PACs became central players in the 2012 elections, even though they were supposed to remain neutral to justify their tax status. To get around that restriction, groups claimed their official tasks were to educate the public, but everyone knows they were engaged in partisan politics, whether it was Crossroads GPS, directed by former George W. Bush aide Karl Rove, or Priorities USA Action, directed by former Obama campaign official Bill Burton.

The money from these groups was poured into advertising in swing states and swing districts. It’s laughable to believe that these are the only areas of the country in need of “education.”

However, the Cincinnati office’s choice to hone in on conservative groups indicates that the law was not being enforced fairly. That’s too bad, because it’s clear that this tax status is being exploited for political purposes by people who wish to remain anonymous. The names of 501(c)(4) donors do not have to be disclosed. Congress could help matters by passing the DISCLOSE Act, which would help lift the veil on secret contributions, but stupidity at the IRS has provided ammunition to those who prefer the status quo.

This scandal has already damaged government trust. Sadly, the next victim may be efforts to bring more transparency to our elections.

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