The Internal Revenue Service’s special scrutiny of conservative political groups, which has already embroiled the agency in a public relations nightmare, has now made the IRS the target in a federal court lawsuit accusing it of trampling on people’s constitutional rights.
The suit, on behalf of the Northern California Tea Party Patriots, was filed Monday in the Southern District of Ohio, based in Cincinnati. Fittingly enough, that city is home to the IRS outpost at the center of the storm for singling out conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status.
Todd P. Graves, a former United States Attorney for the Western District of Missouri who left the Department of Justice under unpleasant circumstances (more about that in a moment), is representing the Northern California Tea Party Patriots. He told The Kansas City Star that other Tea Party groups have expressed interest in joining the action. “We will be adding others,” he said, referring to potential plaintiffs. “It’ll be a significant case for a while, for sure.”
Although predicting the shelf-life or outcome of a lawsuit can be risky, Graves is surely safe in saying, in a layman’s terms, that the controversy has legs. The IRS, which is far from popular on Wall Street and Main Street, has tried to no avail to put the mess behind it. The controversy has spilled over to the White House as well, as it has become known that people who should have briefed President Barack Obama on the soon-to-explode revelations failed to do so.
The complaint, against the IRS, the Department of the Treasury and a hundred or so “John Does” representing current and former IRS workers, accuses the defendants of “a muffling and muzzling of free expression” by Tea Party members as they sought to make America a better country. The suit asserts that the defendants violated the First and Fifth Amendments to the Constitution and the Privacy Act of 1974. (The complaint does not thank the defendants for giving the Tea Party wonderful grist for recruiting new members and firing up those already on the barricades.)
As Thomson Reuters reported, the suit has the backing of Citizens for Self-Governance, a group launched by the co-founder the Tea Party Patriots, Mark Meckler. “We stand shoulder to shoulder with all those known and unknown who have been abused by a federal government run amok,” Meckler said in a statement.
Thomson Reuters said that “representatives of the IRS did not respond to a request for comment Monday after normal business hours.”
To be sure, IRS officials are busy enough coping with bipartisan outrage on Capitol Hill, where Lois Lerner, who heads the IRS’s division on tax-exempt organizations, heatedly denied on Wednesday that she had done anything wrong, then exercised her Fifth Amendment rights and exited the hearing room, as The New York Times reported.
As Main Justice reported on Monday, Kathryn Ruemmler, the chief White House lawyer and a former DOJ official, is among those coming under fire for not briefing the president early on about the percolating controversy, so he could get out in front of it. It is safe to say there will be more outrage vented in the Capitol in the days ahead, and in big cities and small towns in the 2014 elections.
As for Graves, now of Graves Bartle Marcus & Garrett in Kansas City, he was among those United States Attorneys who were clumsily fired in 2006 in the controversy that contributed to the departure of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales (see New York Times report). As Main Justice reported, another defenestrated U.S. Attorney at a forum in 2010 said the firings had turned the DOJ into a “laughingstock.”
Of late, the IRS has been a laughingstock. Now it is a defendant as well.
Correction: Due to an error in a previous article, Main Justice erroneously reported that Graves had been present at a 2010 forum of purged U.S. Attorneys. In fact, he did not attend.