Lawsuits lodged against the Internal Revenue Service after it admitted some officials inappropriately targeted conservative political groups seeking tax-exempt status may face an uphill battle, but they will help shed new detailsn the misguided scrutiny.
Cleta Mitchell, counsel to True the Vote and the ActRight Legal Foundation, which filed a suit Tuesday against the IRS in U.S. District Court, admitted the complaint was made on "difficult claims" but hopes to shine some light on the brewing scandal.
"We are primarily concerned about knowing the truth; we believe that the IRS is still dissembling and denying, not telling Congress or the public the truth," she said during a press call. "We know that these IRS agents and employees that were interviewed by the inspector general were not under oath and did not have their internal emails and communications and that's what we hope to get in this lawsuit."
The suit, filed on behalf of True the Vote, a citizen group based in Houston that claims it was unfairly targeted, named several top IRS officials including former IRS commissioners Steven Miller and Doug Shulman and Lois Lerner, who headed the tax-exempt division, as well as "unknown named IRS employees."
"One of the things that we are doing is finding out what exactly the IRS did with the information we were requested to provide and did provide," Mitchell said, adding that the suit names IRS employees in both their official and individual capacities, on the grounds that they violated the civil rights of True the Vote.
"We have sued these IRS agents and employees not only in their official capacities but in their individual and personal capacities for engaging in this conspiracy to violate True the Vote's constitutional rights," she said.
Paul Rothstein, a professor at Georgetown University Law School, says the case will be expensive and lengthy, but could well yield the results True the Vote is seeking.
"They will take more than a year and there will be an intensive fact-finding and discovery process," he says. "[But] they will uncover the details of what happened because lawsuits are the most powerful way to get into the nitty-gritty and find out all the details."
Parts of the suit have merit, Rothstein says, but it could be difficult still for True the Vote to win.
"There are a number of laws that require impartiality on the part of the IRS and most federal agencies and there are also provisions that prevent exercising government powers for personal or political advantage so those would provide perhaps criminal and civil remedies," he says. "They would have to prove intention to have political favoritism rather than just the whole plan, looking at words like "tea party" was just a method for finding out which organizations were social welfare organizations and which were political organizations because the IRS is required to make that distinction."
IRS officials have said staffers in Cincinnati faced a deluge of groups filing for tax-exempt status as 501(c)(4) groups and that they used keywords such as "tea party." "patriot" and "9/12" to more efficiently determine whether their primary focus was on "social welfare" as the law requires. But conservative groups, who have cried foul for some time, use such keywords disproportionately.
"There is some possible defense here for the IRS that this was merely a heavy-handed attempt to in some way with keywords to determine which groups were more political and which groups were more social welfare," Rothstein says.
But Rothstein says rather than the lawsuits prompting policy changes, the congressional and press scrutiny has forced the Obama administration to address the issue.
"The left and the government was dismissing a lot of these complaints as political clap-trap now it has been admitted that it's not just propaganda on the right – that this was going on; that's an important change," he says. "A scandal like this suggesting it's not even handed is just fatal to our whole system and I think that the government and the lawmakers and the regulators now see that this is a terrible thing and a huge threat to how our system works and are on the road to watch-dogging it."