Investigation of IRS Targetting Of Conservative Groups Begins To Echo Watergate
May 23, 2014 • 9:51AM

Last year's furor over revelations that the Internal Revenue Service had targeted conservative activist groups seeking tax exemption for special and invasive attention had largely disappeared from public view, but in the past two weeks has re-emerged with a vengeance.

On May 7, the House of Representatives passed two resolutions on the issue. First, was a resolution recommending that the House find former IRS Director of Exempt Organizations Lois Lerner in contempt of Congress for refusal to comply with the House Oversight Committee's subpoena for testimony. Lerner attended the Committee hearing, and after giving a statement asserting her innocence of any wrongdoing, asserted her Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination to all the Committee's questions. Months later, it was revealed that Lerner had, prior to the Committee hearing, given a full interview on the matter to Justice Department investigators, without a grant of immunity. The contempt resolution was voted up on a near party-line vote of 231-187. The second resolution was for the House to request Attorney General Holder to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the allegations about the IRS. That passed 250-168, this time with the support of twenty-six Democrats.

During House floor proceedings on May 8, it was announced by the Chair that pursuant to the resolution, the Speaker had certified to the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia the refusal of Lois G. Lerner to provide testimony before the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. As we noted at the time, whether the U.S. Attorney will pursue the contempt of Congress charges against Lerner any more vigorously than his refusal to do so for Attorney General Holder, remains to be seen.

On May 14, Judicial Watch announced it had received an FOIA release of Internal Revenue Service documents regarding IRS's handling of Tea Party exemption applications. Judicial Watch and others who have reviewed the documents assert that they demonstrate two important things. As summarized by Main, they show "that the IRS Tea Party scrutiny was directed out of Washington, D.C. Previously, IRS officials testified this inappropriate and possibly illegal inspection of Tea Party groups was done by a rogue office based in Cincinnati. The documents also said to show that Senator Carl Levin (D-Mich.), and others in Congress, were pressuring the IRS about alleged political activities of conservative-leaning tax-exempt organizations.

The three events have unleashed a storm of commentary calling for appointment of a special counsel to conduct the investigation, and the investigation of the Nixon Administration's coverup of the Watergate affair has been pointedly mentioned.

New Orleans Times-Picayune columnist James Varney said in a May 15 column that Lerner is silent because she has something to hide, and invoked a Watergate-era Doonesbury cartoon denouncing President Nixon's unindicted co-conspirators as "Guilty! Guilty! Guilty!" Varney endorsed another columnist's suggestion that Speaker Boehner enforce the House's contempt finding by having Lois Lerner arrested. Since Boehner is unlikely to take such a controversial step, Varney endorsed a law professor's suggestion that the House give Lerner immunity from prosecution, and put her on the stand.

Not to be outdone, conservative Republican flavor-of-the-year Sen. Ted Cruz invoked Watergate in his questioning of FBI Director Comey during a Senate Judiciary hearing yesterday. As reported by The Blaze, Cruz asked, "The attorney general has appointed to lead this investigation a major Obama donor who has given President Obama and Democrats over $6,000. Do you see any actual or apparent conflict of interest in that?" Comey declined to comment. "Cruz followed, 'Do you think it would have been appropriate to trust John Mitchell to investigate Richard Nixon?'" Comey said it was impossible to answer.

Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal and MSNBC reported on May 20, that House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa has issued subpoenas to the Justice Department for documents about the IRS targeting investigation. Issa said he'd previously simply requested the documents, but since the DOJ had not provided them, he was now doing so with subpoenas.

It should be recalled, that the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate Nixon Administration operations (including IRS audits) against political opponents, was a key condition for the 1973 confirmation of Attorney General Elliot Richardson. President Nixon's order to AG Richardson to fire Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox triggered the resignations of Richardson and the Deputy Attorney General. That event, dubbed in the press "the Saturday night massacre," was arguably the beginning of the final days of Nixon's Presidency.