The IRS will be going to court, if Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, has anything to say about it. ACLJ currently represents 25 tea-party groups who believe they were targeted by the IRS because of their politics. Sekulow talks with National Review Online about what he’s looking at and about the court case to come.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: When did you first realize there was a real scandal involving the IRS?
JAY SEKULOW: We became aware of a problem in late 2011 and early 2012, when we were started receiving calls from a number of conservative groups that had concerns about the questions they were receiving from the IRS concerning their applications for tax-exempt status. More and more requests for assistance came into our offices in early 2012, and I assembled a legal team to investigate. It didn’t take long to realize what was happening: a coordinated attempt by the IRS to target and intimidate these conservative groups.
The questions posed by the IRS were extremely intrusive and outside the scope of what the IRS is permitted to do under its own rules and regulations. And the questions, a sample of which is posted here, are not only intrusive – they violate the First Amendment rights of our clients.
We began working with these clients immediately. We represent 27 tea-party organizations: 15 have received tax-exempt status, with all of them experiencing long delays. Ten of our clients are still being harassed and investigated, and their applications are still pending at the IRS after years of waiting. In fact, it’s especially troubling that this harassment and abuse is continuing even today, after the IRS admitted to this unlawful targeting scheme. One of our clients, whose case is still pending, received a new letter from the IRS just days ago seeking more intrusive and unconstitutional information.
LOPEZ: How many requests have you seen in recent days? How many cases have you taken on?
SEKULOW: We have heard from dozens of organizations in recent days. We continue to meet with them and examine their cases.
LOPEZ: What’s the ACLJ approach here? Is it ultimately to try to take down the president?
SEKULOW: The ACLJ is focused on one thing — protecting the constitutional rights of our clients. This is one of the most abhorrent breaches of trust imaginable. We now know this coordinated intimidation scheme went beyond tea-party groups to include Jewish organizations and even groups that discussed the Constitution.
First, by singling out tea-party organizations and related groups for special scrutiny based on their political views, IRS agents violated their own agency’s mission, to operate with integrity and fairness.
Second, with their actions, IRS agents violated the requirement to act impartially.
And third, IRS agents engaged in dishonest, notoriously disgraceful conduct. The same can be said of IRS leaders who knew of, but failed to rein in, such biased, politically motivated conduct, thereby allowing the politicization of the IRS. Each such action was prejudicial to the government and had a negative impact on the reputation of the IRS.
It is no wonder that, in light of the open and notorious politicization of the IRS vis-à-vis the Tea Party and other conservative groups, many Americans view with outright alarm the planned expansion of the IRS to implement the Affordable Care Act. Agencies such as the IRS must be scrupulously apolitical to retain the confidence and trust of the American people. In its treatment of many groups, the IRS failed miserably at that. The growing mistrust of the IRS is the inevitable (and totally understandable) result of its unwise actions.
And another important point: Despite the assertion by the IRS that this scheme originated with a couple of rogue agents out of the Cincinnati office, the ACLJ’s clients have received letters from Cincinnati, but also from two offices in California, El Monte and Laguna Niguel, and the national office in Washington, D.C. In fact, the Washington office sent a letter to one of our clients as recently as one month ago.
The IRS must be held accountable for this dishonest and notoriously disgraceful conduct.
LOPEZ: Some on MSNBC last night were suggesting that people like yourself are overjoyed by this opportunity to make all your favorite anti-government points while targeting President Obama. Does that describe your current mood or approach?
SEKULOW: These critics are simply trying to deflect what most Americans understand. President Obama continues to fail to show leadership as this IRS scandal continues to expand. The resignation of acting IRS commissioner Steven Miller does not solve any of the problems of this tainted and politically driven agency. He was scheduled to depart anyway.
The American people and our clients deserve much more. There are many questions that President Obama continues to ignore — to fail to address — including what he knew about the IRS scheme and when he learned about it.
Another problem: President Obama’s attorney general is heading up this criminal investigation. An independent counsel needs to be appointed, with no ties or allegiance to this president.
The IRS scheme to target conservative groups because of their thoughts and ideological positions is both unconscionable and intolerable. It is also actionable.
LOPEZ: So what’s next?
SEKULOW: We are finalizing a federal lawsuit to be filed next week. We will be representing a number of clients — some of whom we currently represent — including some who have received tax-exempt status and some who are still pending. At the same time, we will be representing new clients, conservative organizations that were also targeted, who have approached us in recent days.
This lawsuit will be significant, and will focus on constitutional issues as well damages incurred by the organizations.
We applaud the congressional efforts underway to get to the bottom of what happened concerning this IRS conduct. In written testimony provided to the House Ways and Means Committee, we detailed the abuse and harassment of our clients and noted: “The IRS, as well as this Administration, needs to understand that all Americans are now aware of this unconstitutional targeting of American’s First Amendment rights and demand that it cease immediately. Only transparency and accountability to the Congress and the American public will root out corruption in the IRS.”