IRS investigations should not be allowed to become a “fox guarding the henhouse” moment

There is no question the IRS engaged in activity that is both unethical and flatly illegal when it held up the exemption applications of certain groups based upon the assessment of IRS agents that said groups were conservative and/or Tea Party affiliated. They’ve already admitted it – it’s not a matter of “alleged” actions or any other such nonsense. The question now is a matter of how high up the chain did this go. The official story was that it was just a couple of rogue agents, bottom-rung grunts doing their own thing. Then – oh! – no, it was an isolated section in the Cincinnati office that was doing it. Then – oh! – it was several sections because – wow, that’s weird – the so-called rogue agents weren’t even in the same unit. Managers are definitely involved because when you look at the 6 agents that have now been identified as having actually performed the holds and invasive questioning their command hierarchy only meets up at the top local IRS employee in Cincinnati: Cindy Thomas.

As in any organization of this size, there are checks and balances, oversight mechanisms, and auditing procedures designed explicitly to keep a couple of “rogue agents” from striking out on their own and doing precisely what was done here. Former IRS agent Bonnie Esrig worked in the Cincinnati office herself up until her retirement in January and she confirms: the official story just doesn’t sound right.

Esrig said that recent media headlines reporting that “rogue” agents were responsible and questioning whether the Obama Administration had played a role, surprised her, given her first-hand knowledge of the unit and its work.

“The idea of two rogue employees,” Esrig said, “is inconsistent with the kinds of checks and balances that are inherent in the way the organization is set up.”

Nor does she believe the IRS assertion in its response to the Inspector General’s audit that the use of such inappropriate selection criteria were “mistakes” and that “front-line career employees … made the decisions.”  

“Front-line employees (at the Cincinnati office) do not make key decisions about policy and how work is processed,” Esrig told us.  “Work is reviewed by the managers. The employees don’t operate autonomously where there is no review. The managers review.”

This, by the way, is consistent with my own experience working for federal agencies. Local news affiliate FOX19 examined that management chain and found that the point of management review was a lot closer to DC than the Administration is saying it was:

The six Cincinnati workers we have identified, who sent scrutinizing letters to conservative groups with words including "patriot, liberty, tea party or 9-12" in their names are Mitchel Steele, Carly Young, Joseph Herr, Stephen Seok, Liz Hofacre and a woman identified only as Ms. Richards.

Mitchel Steele, Carly Young, Joseph Herr and Liz Hofacre are IRS agents.  Stephen Seok is a supervisor IRS agent.

But according to the IRS employee directory that FOX19 has obtained exclusively, each of these agents has a different manager and then above them a different territory manager.

That is important because while it may sound reasonable to the average person that these workers began targeting groups on their own, the IRS structure is designed to prevent that. 

Yes, as Ms. Esrig noted, above. And who, then, is the point of connection for all of these agents?

So who in the chain of command would have received all these flags?  The answer, according to the IRS directory,  one woman in Cincinnati, Cindy Thomas, the Program Manager of the Tax Exempt Division.  Because all six of our IRS workers have different individual and territory managers, Cindy Thomas is one manager they all have common.    

It turns out Cindy Thomas’ name is one we have heard before.  The independent journalism group ProPublica says in November of 2012 they had requested information on conservatives groups that had received non-profit status.  Along with that information, the IRS released private information on nine conservative groups that had not yet been approved and personal information had not been redacted.  The person who signed off on that release, Cindy Thomas. 

Ms. Thomas, it should be noted, is the last stop in the chain before jumping to Washington DC. Are we to believe that the layers of oversight just stop with her? That each office in each city is an island unto their own? Sorry, it doesn’t work like that. Clearly, we need an investigation that will look into precisely where the decision was made to act in a manner both inappropriate and illegal as was done by the IRS in this case. Ms. Thomas’ previous action with ProPublica indicates a less-than-stellar approach to adhering to the law, particularly where conservative groups are concerned so we should be putting some special scrutiny there. The problem, here, is that the people supposedly in position to perform the investigation are under the control of people in the command chain supposedly under investigation. The Department of Justice is also under the microscope for their own scandal involving probably violations of constitutionally-protected civil rights. How do we even begin to trust them to give us a thorough investigation?

I’m not even sure if there’s a mechanism for this already in place, but an investigation like this should be handled by some agency outside of the Executive branch of the federal government. Now, whether that’s an investigatory arm of the Judicial branch, of Congress (which I also don’t trust), or of the States (which I prefer, frankly) it should be performed and run completely outside of the control or oversight of the current Administration. They should have the power to go wherever the investigation leads and that’s including into the offices of the Treasury Secretary or the Attorney General – even into the White House if that’s where the trail goes. These actions have undermined the public trust in government as a whole and if we’re to restore it, we need to shine some pretty powerful light into corners people are working very hard to keep dark.