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IRS, union mum on employees held accountable in political targeting

Columnist

The targeting of political groups by the Internal Revenue Service is not only “outrageous,” as President Obama said Monday, but it also might be a “deadly sin.”

At issue is the boiling scandal about the IRS singling out dozens of tea party and other conservative organizations for special attention of the most unwanted kind.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about federal government and workplace issues that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. Davidson previously was an assistant city editor at The Washington Post and a Washington and foreign correspondent with The Wall Street Journal, where he covered federal agencies and political campaigns. View Archive

It’s worth noting that the IRS is one of Washington’s least political agencies, at least in terms of staffing. It has only two political appointees. The top one, the commissioner at the time of the targeting, was appointed by Republican George W. Bush.

Obama told a news conference that “if, in fact, IRS personnel engaged in the kind of practices that had been reported on and were intentionally targeting conservative groups, then that’s outrageous and there’s no place for it. And they have to be held fully accountable.”

On Friday, Lois Lerner, head of the IRS division that oversees tax-exempt organizations, called it “absolutely inappropriate and not the way we ought to do things.”

Her role in all of this could prove to be complex. She’s a career employee who was vigilant about not playing politics with IRS business, according to reporting by my colleague David A. Fahrenthold. Yet when she found out about and objected to the targeting in June 2011, it took almost a year before more general standards for auditing organizations were implemented.

Since Friday, the IRS has been like a turtle, withdrawing into a silent shell. The agency has not said whether anyone has been held accountable. The union representing IRS employees has been uncharacteristically quiet.

Obama and Lerner are right to call IRS targeting outrageous and inappropriate, but the deeds also could be sinful, at least under the commandments that govern the IRS.

The Internal Revenue Service Restructuring and Reform Act of 1998 lists actions that have been dubbed the “10 deadly sins.” The statute says the IRS commissioner “shall terminate the employment of any employee” if there is “a final administrative or judicial determination” of misconduct.

The 10 sins, as listed by the Government Accountability Office are:

1. Willful failure to obtain the required approval signatures on documents authorizing a seizure of a taxpayer’s home, personal belongings, or business assets.

2. Providing a false statement under oath with respect to a material matter involving a taxpayer or taxpayer representative.

3. Violating the rights protected under the Constitution or the civil rights established under six specifically identified laws with respect to a taxpayer, taxpayer representative, or other employee of the IRS.

4. Falsifying or destroying documents to conceal mistakes made by any employee with respect to a matter involving a taxpayer or taxpayer representative.

5. Assault or battery of a taxpayer, taxpayer representative, or employee of the IRS but only if there is a criminal conviction, or a final judgment by a court in a civil case, with respect to the assault or battery.

6. Violating the Internal Revenue Code, Department of the Treasury regulations, or policies of the IRS (including the Internal Revenue Manual) for the purpose of retaliating against, or harassing a taxpayer, taxpayer representative, or other employee of the IRS.

7. Willful misuse of the provisions of Section 6103 of the Internal Revenue Code for the purpose of concealing information from a congressional inquiry.

8. Willful failure to file any return of tax required under the Internal Revenue Code on or before the date prescribed therefore (including any extensions), unless such failure is due to reasonable cause and not to willful neglect.

9. Willful understatement of federal tax liability, unless such failure is due to reasonable cause and not to willful neglect.

10. Threatening to audit a taxpayer for the purpose of extracting personal gain or benefit.

Several experts, inside and outside of government, were contacted and none identified any other agency with such agency-specific and conduct-specific discipline in federal personnel law.

“The feeling was that the IRS needed specific prohibitions against abuse since it possesses powers over individual lives like no other agency has, or did at the time, and was abusing those powers in some cases,” said Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), who sponsored the “sins” amendment.

Potentially, targeting certain taxpayers could violate sins 3 and 6.

But who are the violators?

Lerner blamed “front-line people” during Friday’s conference call with reporters. In July 2010, according to the draft inspector general’s report: “Determinations Unit management requested its specialists to be on the lookout for Tea Party applications.” Perhaps “front-line people” includes unit management. Perhaps not. The IRS isn’t saying.

In cases like these, there’s often the suspicion that front-line or lower-level workers will be forced to take the fall for higher-ups. Labor organizations can play an important role in protecting employees from being unfairly disciplined while management slides.

So far, the National Treasury Employees Union, which generally is not shy with public comment, has next to nothing to say about that or anything else.

“NTEU is working to get the facts but does not have any specifics at this time. Moreover, IRS employees are not permitted to discuss taxpayer cases. We cannot comment further at this time,” NTEU President Colleen M. Kelley said via e-mail.

A call to the NTEU office in Cincinnati resulted in a similar response: “We’ve been directed by national office. We have no comment.”

Somebody needs to say something soon.

Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

Staff writer Eric Yoder contributed to this report.

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.

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