By Jason Stverak | Franklin Center
Consider a government that uses one of its bureaus to stifle free speech – silencing its harshest critics.
What if that department literally were above the law, able to confiscate property and financial assets and sell them off?
Sounds like I’m talking about an Islamic regime or fascist dictator on the other side of the world. Sadly, I’m talking about the government of the United States.
The ongoing revelation that the Internal Revenue Service singled out organizations whose name included “tea party” or “patriot” should scare every American who values the First Amendment.
Amid the sounding of alarm bells from left to right across the entire political spectrum, every single citizen should be outraged that Uncle Sam could and would abuse power in this manner.
Like all government scandals, the cover-up – lies to hide the abuse of power– turns a bad situation into a nightmare. Lois Lerner, director of the IRS’ exempt organizations unit, claims “there was no political motivation at all,” and this violation was only conducted by “low-level” employees in the Cincinnati office last year.
Two days after Lerner’s statement, the Associated Press reported that Lerner knew of the targeting as early as June 2011. Wisconsin Reporter, a project of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, learned that conservative groups “from Virginia to Hawaii” were subject to the same scrutiny as the Ohio organizations. Discrediting Lerner further is a Washington Post report that offices in Washington and two other states were involved.
So how extensive is this abuse of power, and who in the administration issued the directive? Anyone who believes I’m jumping to conclusions needs to take off the blinders. We know that multiple government offices took part in targeting political groups and Congress and the media were lied to by senior IRS officials. This isn’t the work of a few rogue low-level government bureaucrats, as Lerner wants us to believe.
I’m not an alarmist. I have come down hard on voices from both sides of the aisle that casually make irrational comparisons and statements regarding those with whom they disagree. But when a government agency tramples on the free-speech rights of Americans, the greatest threat to our democracy becomes an apathetic public and a complacent media refusing to speak up and keep our elected officials accountable.
Arguably more frightening than the assault against conservative organizations is the recent development that religious organizations – Jewish groups – were targeted.
The Pennsylvania-based nonprofit group Z STREET is a pro-Israel advocacy organization that filed a lawsuit against the IRS in 2010. As reported by the Jewish Press, the IRS advised Z STREET that “because the organization was ‘connected to Israel,’ its application for tax-exempt status would receive additional scrutiny.” Z STREET was further informed by a government official, “applications of some of those Israel-related organizations have been assigned to ‘a special unit’ in the D.C. office to determine whether the organization’s activities contradict the Administration’s public policies.”
When does the government of the United States thwart the activities of organizations that offer a different point of view?
The answer to that question is supposed to be never. But as Joel Pollak of Breitbart.com recently pointed out, it’s more than conceivable to believe that the scrutiny of Z Street may have come directly from the Democratic hierarchy as a favor to the far-left J Street.
The investigation into Z Street occurred right after J Street announced plans to lobby the Treasury Department to revoke the tax-exempt status of Jewish charities that support religious and cultural institutions in disputed territories. Is the IRS being used to implement strong-arm tactics for political favors? The question is legitimate.
Over the next few months the media must investigate who is behind these violations of the First Amendment, keep our elected officials accountable, seek the truth, and disclose it to the public.
As we learned this past week from the Benghazi scandal, taking the government at its word results in dire consequences when the checks don’t balance.
Jason Stverak is president of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.