WASHINGTON, D.C. —
The first and arguably most foundational amendment to the U.S. Constitution clearly states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” As a result of these wise words penned and adopted by our forefathers more than 220 years ago, regardless of religious or political beliefs, the framework was established to protect one’s right to hold and exercise their personal beliefs.
Last month, however, we uncovered an assault on this foundational right when a Cincinnati branch of the Internal Revenue Service was exposed for purposefully targeting conservative and religious groups seeking tax-exempt status, most noticeably those associated with the tea party. This targeting had been taking place since at least February 2010 and involved drawing out a usually quick process for months and months or leaving applicants in limbo — neither approved nor denied. This behavior is unconstitutional, illegal and inexcusable. Not only is penalizing for holding certain viewpoints an abuse of power, but it also attacks and jeopardizes the exercise of free speech our founding fathers sought to protect.
While the IRS was quick to blame two “rogue” agents for this scandal, recent investigations testimony heard by House committees indicate that officials in Washington approved, encouraged and even directed this added scrutiny. Some sources estimate there may have been up to 88 employees involved in this illegal, unconstitutional profiling that delayed applications through invasive, excessive questioning.
Without question, those responsible for this scandal must be held accountable. It is not a matter that can be fixed with empty apologies or phony resignations of IRS officials, including Acting Commissioner Steven Miller. The only true remedy to the situation requires cooperation and transparency from the IRS and all individuals involved, including former director of exempt organizations, Lois Lerner.
During a May 22 hearing conducted by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Lerner appeared before the committee only to refuse her testimony by pleading the Fifth Amendment. Lerner claimed innocence, denied any wrongdoing and refused to provide any information to the committee — even though she admitted on May 10 at an American Bar Association event that partisan criteria was used to screen applicants. Shortly after the hearing, she was placed on paid administrative leave at the IRS. Sarah Hall Ingram, former commissioner within the same tax-exempt office, however, was promoted from her post to oversee and direct implementation of the president’s health care law.
Headed by Attorney General Eric Holder, the often scrutinized Department of Justice is conducting its own audit of the IRS. Considering its involvement in recent scandals, including the seizure of Associated Press phone records and involvement with the ATF gun walking scandal (Fast and Furious), it seems questionable that this investigation will actually get to the bottom of the scandal.
We will seek the truth and hold responsible parties accountable for their wrongful actions. This week, House committees continue to conduct their own investigations into the IRS. On Tuesday, the House Committee on Ways and Means heard testimony from organizations targeted by the IRS based on their political beliefs. Similarly on Thursday, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform will uncover even more areas of waste and abuse within the IRS, including the agency’s use of more than $50 million from taxpayers to hold extravagant conferences for employees throughout 2010-12.
Regardless of political affiliation, all Americans have a reasonable expectation that their freedom of speech and religion shall be protected. Abuse of power and unfair scrutiny must not be tolerated. The recently uncovered activities of the IRS are a disgrace to the administration.
As more information unravels in the coming investigations this week and beyond, we remain committed to getting answers, holding the responsible parties accountable and ensuring something like this never happens again.
U.S. REP. TOM COLE, R-Moore, represents Oklahoma’s 4th Congressional District.