Internal Revenue Service officials in Washington and at least two other offices were involved with investigating conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status, making clear that the effort reached well beyond the branch in Cincinnati that was initially blamed, according to documents obtained by The Washington Post.In isolation, there doesn't seem anything particularly interesting about the IRS conducting a review of an application for tax-exempt non-profit status. After all, enforcement and compliance is part of their job. The question is whether it was linked to politically motivated targeting that took place in Cincinnati.
IRS officials at the agency’s Washington headquarters sent queries to conservative groups asking about their donors and other aspects of their operations, while officials in the El Monte and Laguna Niguel offices in California sent similar questionnaires to tea-party-affiliated groups, the documents show.
IRS employees in Cincinnati told conservatives seeking the status of “social welfare” groups that a task force in Washington was overseeing their applications, according to interviews with the activists.
According to the groups that spoke to the Post, there was a link, but assuming they are right, it doesn't explain why the link was made. It's certainly possible that the explanation is that Washington was participating in Cincinnati's targeting. That would be disturbing, but it's also possible that when Washington worked to end what was happening in Cincinnati, they absorbed the investigative process. And, of course, it's also possible that the groups are wrong to make the link.
Even if Washington and Cincinnati were in cahoots, however, it wouldn't a smoking gun implicating the president. As The Post notes, the administration is forbidden by law from getting involved in IRS tax investigations and the agency only has two political appointments. The director during the time of the targeting was a Bush appointee.
Both Democrats and Republicans are calling for an investigation of what happened, though Republicans appear more interested in making it a political issue than Democrats. The Republican Governors' Association, for example, called on the president to name a special prosecutor.
I'm sure this won't happen, but hopefully Congressional investigators will remember the reason the IRS is involved in investigating these groups in the first place is that under current law, the IRS—not the Federal Elections Commission—is responsible for regulating these groups. There's no justification for targeting them on the basis of political affiliation, but on the other hand, it's not like the IRS should abdicate its responsibility to enforce the law.
I'm sure conservatives would love a scenario where the IRS simply rubber-stamped the tax-exempt status applications of every conservative group, but if the IRS did that, what would the point be of having laws in the first place? Moreover, the idea that conservatives are the only groups that have ever been singled out is ridiculous—liberals were targeted for political reasons during the Bush years.
Bottom-line: This is a serious issue, but if conservatives approach it as a partisan game, it'll turn into another Benghazi probe, and quickly.