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Editorial: IRS troubles

The Internal Revenue Service has long been one of the federal agencies that Americans love to hate.

While playing its role as the chief collector of federal taxes, it has created the image of an organization of faceless bureaucrats without an ounce of compassion, intent on putting the average working man and woman in a bind while turning a blind eye to those super-rich who manage to pay no taxes at all.

Now let’s add political bias to that blighted image.

Conservative organizations and “tea party” groups have long claimed that they were being harassed by the IRS. Now the agency has admitted that this belief wasn’t based entirely upon paranoia exhibited by conspiracy theorists or political malcontents, but rather was caused by a momentary shift in how these groups were addressed.

Criteria used to examine groups that used such labels as “tea party,” “patriot” or “9/12” in their names were altered, and their requests for tax-exempt status took an unhealthy political turn. Apparently, special attention was paid to groups advocating such moves as “limiting/expanding government” or “educating on the Constitution and Bill of Rights.”

How far the IRS went in scrutinizing these groups, whether such scrutiny got turned into action and who exactly knew what was happening remains unknown at this time. The report from the agency’s inspector general has not yet been released.

But a probe into the matter won’t — and should not — end here. Congress will get involved, as will the Justice Department. And while partisan grandstanding is a likely sideshow to how this story unfolds, based upon the condemnation coming from all sides, including the president, we do have a degree of hope that the truth will prevail and that those responsible will be held accountable.

To that end, we would urge an independent counsel be appointed to lead an investigation into this matter.

That will help determine whether this matter was internally motivated or was prompted by individuals elsewhere in the administration. It’s worth noting that it was the agency itself that discovered and made public this aberration.

The public deserves answers.

“If in fact IRS personnel engaged in the kind of practices that have been reported on and were intentionally targeting conservative groups, then that’s outrageous. And there’s no place for it,” Obama said on Monday. “And they have to be held fully accountable. ... the IRS as an independent agency requires absolute integrity, and people have to have confidence that they’re ... applying the laws in a nonpartisan way.”

And an investigation based upon integrity would be a big step toward restoring that confidence.

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