These Senators Could Be in Ethics Trouble Over the IRS Scandal

The smoking gun in the IRS targeting scandal could be found in the Senate, one advocacy group says, pointing out a correspondence it believes pressured the tax agency to impose extra scrutiny on conservative groups as part of a Democratic election strategy in 2010 and 2012.

In this April 1, 2014, file photo, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Lauren Victoria Burke, File)

The Center for Competitive Politics, which opposes campaign finance restrictions and other limits on political speech, filed a complaint with the Senate Select Committee on Ethics against nine Democratic senators, most notably Assistant Majority Leader Dick Durbin of Illinois and Carl Levin of Michigan, for repeated lobbying of the IRS to probe conservative groups.

It also specifically cites Charles Schumer of New York, who was the lead author of letters to the IRS signed by Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire; Tom Udall of New Mexico; Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island; Al Franken of Minnesota; Michael Bennet of Colorado; and Jeff Merkley of Oregon.

David Keating, the organization’s president, cited the abuse of the IRS by the Nixon White House, and the post-Watergate laws that prevented the White House from using the IRS for political reasons.

“If someone in the White House was connected it would make it a real criminal violation and a very sensational thing,” Keating told TheBlaze. “I doubt that happened. But there was huge heat coming from the Senate.”

If congressional committees believe organizations are skirting tax laws, there are procedures to investigate, Keating said.

“I don’t think it’s every appropriate for Congress to ask a law enforcement agency to go investigate this group, go audit that group,” he added. “Congress is not the FBI. It is not the Justice Department.”

A staffer with the Senate Ethics Committee said they could not confirm to TheBlaze whether the committee would investigate the matter, but said all complaints are taken serious. The complaint says the senators interfered with executive branch agency proceeding, misused official resources for campaign purposes, gave at least the appearance of impropriety, and engaged in conduct that might reflect poorly on the Senate.

“All of these actions appear to have been undertaken for electoral, rather than official purposes – Sens. Durbin and Schumer, in particular, have openly stated as much,” the complaint says. “Additionally, Sen. Levin’s repeated requests for information, after being explicitly informed that the information could not lawfully be disclosed, violate Paragraph 2 of the Code of Ethics for U.S. Government Service. We request that the Committee, in accordance with its mandate, investigate each violation accordingly and impose appropriate sanctions.”

The offices of Durbin, Levin and Schumer did not respond to TheBlaze. The complaint states that in 2010 after the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling, and after Democrats failed to pass further campaign finance restrictions in the Senate, President Barack Obama talked about groups that “pose as non-for-profit, social welfare and trade groups,” and “[e]very single one of them, virtually, is guided by seasoned, Republican political operatives.”

“Within days, a member of the United States Senate abused his office to advance his political party’s midterm election campaign efforts by using official resources to pressure the Internal Revenue Service to investigate certain conservative organizations that Democrats had not been able to silence with legislation,” the complaint says, referring to Sen. Max Baucus (D-Montana), who became the U.S. ambassador to China earlier this year.

Levin, the chairman of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, had 14 correspondence to and from IRS officials from March 2012 to March 2013, where he urged the IRS to probe the nonprofit groups. In one he called for the IRS to send “a message…to Section 501(c)(4) entities on an urgent basis.” He also asked the agency to provide tax information about the political activity of the groups, to which IRS officials told him they could not legally provide him.

Then-acting IRS Commissioner Steven Miller told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that Levin’s efforts had an effect on the targeting. The complaint quotes Miller telling the committee: “So I’m not sure there was a problem, right? I mean, I think we were—we had, you know, Mr. Levin complaining bitterly to us about—Senator Levin complaining bitterly about our regulation that was older than me, where we had read ‘exclusively’ to mean ‘primarily’ in the 501(c)(4) context.  And, you know, we were being asked to take a look at that.  And so we were thinking about what things could be done.”

In the closing weeks of the 2010 midterm election, Durbin wrote then-IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman complaining that “one organization whose activities appear to be inconsistent with its tax status is Crossroads GPS,” the conservative organization affiliated with former Bush White House advisor Karl Rove.

Durbin’s office issued a press release that called for the “IRS to investigating spending by Crossroads GPS.” The House Oversight Committee found that IRS official Joseph Urban circulated the Durbin press release within the agency. The other senators – Schumer, Bennet, Franken, Merkley, Shaheen, Udall and Whitehouse – co-signed letters to Shulman on Feb. 16, 2012 and again on March 12, 2012, demanding action against Crossroads GPS.

The complaint says the action by the senators may have triggered audits, citing a May 12, 2011 article in the New York Times that reported the IRS is sent letters to donors of 501(c)(4) groups “informing [the donors] that their contributions may be subject to gift taxes depending on whether the donations exceeded limits under the tax laws.”

The Times said “[t]he timing of the agency’s moves, as the 2012 election cycle gets under way, is prompting some tax law and campaign finance experts to question whether the I.R.S. could be sending a signal in an effort to curtail big donations.”

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