By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog
“It’s just lies,” said Rick Harbaugh, former president and current secretary of the group that has waited 4 1/2 years to receive nonprofit status. “I don’t know what to say. Either they’re absolutely incompetent or they’re absolutely violating the law constantly and don’t give a damn.”
The Internal Revenue Service said Friday it can’t find two years’ worth of emails from Lois Lerner, former head of the IRS exempt organizations division.
Then, on Tuesday, congressional investigators said the IRS “cannot produce records from six other IRS employees involved in the targeting of conservative groups.”
”I think people are getting to the point where they expect their government to lie to them and they don’t care,” Harbaugh said in a telephone interview with New Mexico Watchdog.
Lerner has been the heart of a scandal that broke more than a year ago. IRS Commissioner John Koskinen in March assured congressional investigators the emails were “stored in servers.” But now, the IRS blames a crash of Lerner’s hard drive in 2011 for its inability to retrieve emails that came primarily from outside the IRS, including the White House and other major offices and departments.
Republicans on the House Ways and Means Committee say the IRS knew as early as February that emails were missing but were not told until late Friday.
“It looks like the American people were lied to and the IRS tried to cover-up the fact it conveniently lost key documents in this investigation,” committee chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., and Rep. Charles Boustany, R-La., said in a statement.
“I think it’s entirely reasonable. And it’s fact,” incoming White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters Monday. Earlier this year, President Obama said there was “Not even a smidgen of corruption” surrounding the IRS controversy.
Harbaugh says the IRS has become a political arm: “It’s a tool to intimidate. It’s a tool to abuse.”
But what about reports that liberal political groups were scrutinized, too?
“You can say that, it’s true,” Harbaugh said. “But they looked at eight to 10 of them and did nothing. They’ve looked at tea party organizations throughout the United States and are abusing them unmercifully.”
Harbaugh said it would be “wonderful” for a special prosecutor to be appointed to determine what happened and to retrieve the missing emails.
“The information is still there,” Harbaugh said. “It’s just more difficult to find now. It’s on servers somewhere. You just have to do better investigating.”
The Albuquerque Tea Party, which first applied for tax exempt status as a 501(c)(4) social welfare group in December 2009, is one of a number of conservative political groups that accuses the IRS of hassling them and delaying their approval as nonprofits.
Harbaugh says his organization’s voice has been muted. “We have this big pile of money that we can’t do anything with because the Internal Revenue Service is behaving so poorly.”
The Albuquerque Tea Party has joined 41 organizations in 22 states in filing a lawsuit in Washington, D.C., with the American Center for Law and Justice, taking on the IRS, the Department of Justice and other federal officials. In its filings the ACLJ pointed to a IRS letter from its D.C. office in 2010 to the Albuquerque Tea Party asking the group a series of 10 follow-up questions. Among them was information into “Marianne Chiffelle’s Breakfasts.”
New Mexico Watchdog later discovered that “Marianne Chiffelle’s Breakfasts” was not a restaurant or business, but an 83-year-old great-grandmother and former World War II internment camp survivor who is active in Republican politics in Albuquerque.
“There is no rule of law and we’re in a situation of tyranny and something needs to be done to restore the American values that have kept us alive for 250 years,” Harbaugh said.
The Albuquerque Tea Party held two big taxpayer rallies in 2010 and 2011 in front of the IRS building in Albuquerque that, Harbaugh said, drew between 8,000 to 11,000 people. He said a rally this year drew just 300.
“They’ve given up,” Harbaugh said. “They’re hiding. They don’t trust their government anymore.”
Democrats on Capitol Hill dismissed talk about government-inspired plots and schemes.
“It is unfortunate that the IRS experienced equipment failure that resulted in several computers crashing and some email data being lost from Lois Lerner’s hard drive between 2009 and 2011,” Rep. Sander Levin, D-Michigan, the top Democrat on Ways and Means said. “But every equipment failure is not a conspiracy.”
Contact Rob Nikolewski at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @robnikolewski