Credit: SHAWN THEW/EPA/Newscom

Credit: SHAWN THEW/EPA/Newscom

There were fireworks this week in the House of Representatives as two different committees held hearings on Wednesday and Thursday over the IRS targeting of Tea Party and other conservative groups, as well as proposed new regulations by the IRS that would silence these same organizations (but not unions).

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On Wednesday, the House Ways and Means Committee questioned IRS Commissioner John Koskinen. The Committee released an email it had obtained from inside the Treasury Department showing that back in 2012 when it appears that the IRS was in the middle of trying to prevent conservative organizations from being granted tax exempt status, the administration was already planning to draft new regulations restricting the political activity of the same organizations. The email was sent by Ruth Madrigal of the Office of Tax Policy at Treasury to Lois Lerner, the IRS official who refused to answer questions from Congress about the scandal by asserting her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

That June 14, 2012, email indicated that Madrigal and Lerner would be devising the new rules “off-plan,” which is federal government-speak meaning that their plan would not be published on the public schedule of the IRS. What is significant about this email is that it flatly contradicts prior assertions by the Obama administration that the proposed new regulations defining “candidate-related political activity” were planned only after the IRS scandal was made public in order to “clarify” the regulations. Instead, it appears the administration not only tried to delay and prevent conservative organizations from receiving their tax-exempt status prior to the 2012 election, but was also already planning new regulations that would stifle their political speech and potential criticism of the administration. Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp (R-MI) said that “if Treasury and the IRS fabricated the rationale for the rule change it would tend to raise questions about the integrity of the rule-making process.”

The Thursday hearing by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform was even more dramatic, with riveting testimony by Catherine Engelbrecht, the head of True the Vote, on how she, her husband, and their business were targeted by the IRS, the FBI, ATF, and other government agencies on 15 separate occasions after True the Vote applied to the IRS for a tax exemption. True the Vote has repeatedly been harassed and sued by liberal groups because it wants to improve election integrity and stop voter fraud. In fact, Engelbrecht announced that she would be filing ethics charges against the ranking Democrat on the Committee, Elijah Cummings (D-MD), for demanding the same kind of documentation and information the IRS was improperly asking for and for publicly defaming her and her organization.  Becky Gerritson of the Wetumpka Tea Party also testified about the problems she encountered.

There was also striking testimony by Cleta Mitchell and Jay Sekulow, both of whom are representing dozens of conservative organizations. It was clear from their testimony that not only is the targeting continuing to occur, since many of the organizations they represent still haven’t been granted their tax exemption, but that the Justice Department does not seem to be doing a real investigation since it hasn’t spoken to any of their clients about their experiences with the IRS. The testimony of these witnesses contradicted recent assertion by Obama that there was “not even a smidgen” of corruption in the apparent effort by the IRS to silence conservative groups.

It should come as no surprise that almost immediately after these two highly damaging hearings, two House Democratic representatives, Gerry Connolly (D-VA) and Matt Cartwright (D-PA), demanded that the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency investigate the federal auditor who first revealed the administration’s wrongdoing: J. Russell George, the Inspector General for Tax Administration at the Treasury Department. Apparently, they would rather shoot the messenger then get to the bottom of what actually happened. And other elected representatives such as Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) have made it clear that they see nothing wrong with what the IRS has done. Schumer even recently urged the IRS to “redouble efforts immediately” to “weaken” and “exploit” Tea Parties and the conservative movement.

What is clear from these hearings and the other evidence that has surfaced over the past eight months is that the First Amendment rights of Americans are under assault.