The Cincinnati Lie
By Rich Lowry – June 14, 2013
The IRS hadn’t spoken four sentences about its targeting of conservative groups before it blamed “our line people in Cincinnati.”
Those were the words of Lois Lerner on May 10, when she acknowledged the misconduct in an answer to a question planted at an American Bar Association conference. In a phone session with reporters later that day, she famously admitted that she is not good at math. It turns out that she is not good at geography, either.
The locus of the IRS scandal, it has steadily emerged, is not in Cincinnati but in Washington, where lawyers and supervisors were aware of and directed the special scrutiny for tea party groups applying for 501(c)(4) status. This has falsified a line of defense that the administration and its allies have held as assiduously as Lt. John Chard’s troops at Rorke’s Drift in the Anglo-Zulu War.
Jay Carney explained on May 20: “There were line employees at the IRS who improperly targeted conservative groups.” Rep. Jim McDermott of Washington state summed it all up at a Ways and Means Committee hearing by saying, “This small group of people in the Cincinnati office screwed up.” Just the other day on the “O’Reilly Factor,” James Carville held out the possibility that the whole mess was caused by — yes — “some people in the Cincinnati office.”
They have all made Cincinnati a byword for scandal. By their account, there’s no explaining Cincinnatians. They are a strange and foreign people, noted for their bristling hostility to the tea party and their cussed resistance to direction or oversight from above. It’s a wonder the IRS is even able to maintain an office in Cincinnati, given the inherent recklessness of workers in that remote southern Ohio city.
The Cincinnati explanation has many virtues. It serves to minimize the scandal by blaming it on what sounds like a bureaucratic backwater, and it throws lower-level employees — rather than their supervisors — under the bus. Most important, the Cincinnati IRS office is about 505 miles from the White House, 504.2 more miles than the IRS headquarters at 1111 Constitution Ave. N.W.
But the Blame Cincinnati First crowd should have had no credibility from the beginning. As my National Review colleague Eliana Johnson reported, the inspector general report, released right after the scandal broke, detailed in its chronology how Cincinnati employees constantly interacted with Washington. In May 2010, staff in the so-called Determinations Unit in Cincinnati were told to “send additional information request letters to the Technical Unit for review prior to issuance.” The Technical Unit is in Washington.
About a week later, the Technical Unit “began reviewing additional information request letters prepared by the Determinations Unit.” IRS lawyers in Washington approved intrusive questions of tea party groups and even wrote them. Staff in Cincinnati complained that all the micromanagement from Washington was gumming up the works.
The House Oversight Committee investigation has found the same thing. A Cincinnati employee named Gary Muthert said in an interview with committee investigators that he flagged tea party applications because his supervisor told him that “Washington, D.C., wanted some cases,” specifically it “wanted seven.”
Johnson reports that another Cincinnati employee, Elizabeth Hofacre, was shocked when Lerner initially blamed Cincinnati. She told committee investigators, “It was a nuclear strike on us.” For her, the motivation was obvious: “I just thought when Lois Lerner dropped that bombshell, ‘Oh, it was Cincinnati’s problem,’ she thought it would go away, but instead it exploded.”
In Hofacre’s telling, it’s impossible to have a rogue operation of a couple employees in Cincinnati “because of how we are organized.” She explained, “the managers, they have really tight inventory-control systems. I mean they get periodic prints of our inventory, so they know exactly what cases we had, how old they are, how long we have had them and stuff like that. So these two rogue agents running amok for three years, even for three months, it would never happen.”
Notwithstanding all this, the ranking Democrat on the Oversight Committee, Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings has pronounced the IRS scandal solved. He cites the testimony of one Cincinnati manager who says he has no reason to believe that the White House was involved. The manager also says the focus on the tea party arose because someone in Cincinnati went to the Technical Unit with questions on how to handle an initial application in 2010.
Even if this account is correct, it’s a far cry from the Cincinnati-centric defense initially on offer. It means that Washington was involved from the very beginning. As director of Exempt Organizations, and someone who knew about the targeting and was involved in the targeting years ago, this shouldn’t have been a surprise to Lois Lerner. She, after all, works — or worked — in Washington.
The Obama administration’s scandal trifecta has recently become scandal overload. But the IRS is still the most portentous. For now, the initial line of defense at Cincinnati is in ruins.