Internal Revenue Service.
Those three words are enough
to strike fear into the hearts of even the most honest taxpayer. With
its web of obscure and incomprehensible regulations and more power than
the FBI and CIA combined, the IRS is not an organization to be taken lightly.
The IRS, like its counterparts
in the intelligence community, is aware of its immense power and has consistently
abused its privileges. Horror stories abound of IRS abuses.
In one case, the IRS claimed
that a businessman owed back taxes and it threatened to seize the iron
lung which kept his polio-stricken wife alive unless the money was forthcoming.
After Kansas City police
officer Paul Campbell gave a ticket to an IRS agent, he was “randomly”
selected for an audit. After nothing could be found wrong with his taxes
the IRS continued to spy on and harass Campbell for four months before
finally admitting that he owed them nothing.
Books could be filled with
individual incidents like this. What is more alarming, however, is how
the IRS has used its power to harass people and organizations for their
political views and activities.
James Luce knows about this
from firsthand experience. Luce is cofounder (with Richard Yao) of Fundamentalists
Anonymous, a watchdog group that monitors the actions of right-wing religious
groups. FA publicly criticizes powerful members of the religious right
like Jerry Falwell and helped start an investigation that led to the downfall
of television evangelist Jim Baker.
During the presidential campaign
of 1988, the group exposed Dan Quayle’s ties to right-wing fundamentalists.
Since then the IRS hasn’t left the group alone. For over a year now, FA
has been subjected to unannounced visits from IRS agents and threatening
Luce believes the IRS harassment
is politically motivated. “(Last July) senior IRS officials, led
by Robert Keller, explicitlytold (me) that the goal of the IRS was to
‘shut down’ Fundamentalists Anonymous and make it ‘grovel’ to the IRS,”
The IRS later apologized for
those statements. Only ten days later, however, FA received a “random”
audit notice from the agency.
Fundamentalists Anonymous is
by no means the first or last group to receive such attention from the
IRS. Presidents Kennedy and Johnson both tried to use the IRS for political
gain without much success. It was left up to Richard Nixon to fully exploit
the power of the IRS.
In 1969, Nixon authorized the
creation of the Special Service Staff (SSS)– a branch of the IRS dedicated
to investigating political dissidents and helping out Nixon friends.
The SSS accomplished several
things for Nixon. It gave him access to confidential tax records and investigations,
which he used to gain an advantage over his opponents.
In 1972, for example, Nixon
was facing fierce competition from George Wallace in the Alabama Republican
primary. The Nixon campaign managed to garner an IRS file on some alleged
illegal dealings involving Wallace. They then leaked the file to the press
a few days before the primary.
Nixon also sought to gain special
favors from the IRS for his friends. He intervened to make sure that supporters
such as the Rev. Billy Graham and John Wayne were not subjected to IRS
investigation. The Nixon administration also intervened to ensure that
the Committee to Re-Elect the President got special tax exemptions.
The most appalling Nixon abuse
of the IRS was the so-called “Political Enemies Project.” Using
John Dean and Gordon Liddy as intermediaries Nixon drew up a plan which,
as Dean would later testify, was designed to “use the available machinery
to screw our political enemies.”
The White House made lists
of opponents, and then applied pressure on the IRS (and FBI) to have these
people audited and harassed. The strategy seemed to work as those on the
list were audited at a much higher rate than the average taxpayer.
By 1972, the SSS kept detailed
records on over 2,500 organizations and 7,000 individuals who held beliefs
contrary to Nixon’s.
After Watergate testimony revealed
the Nixon abuses of the IRS, Congress passed a series of laws aimed at
protecting citizens. Unfortunately those laws proved ineffective in shielding
political activists, and have been easily sidestepped by subsequent presidents.
When the North American Congress
on Latin America criticized President Reagan’s policies on Nicaragua,
the IRS tried to withdraw the group’s tax-exempt status at the urging
of the White House. Similarly, many activists who visited Nicaragua returned
home to find audit notifications waiting for them.
In the best tradition of Senator
McCarthy, persecution of political dissidents continues.
This article originally appeared in the Western Herald.