May 22, 2014 at 2:31 pm

Nolan Finley

IRS scandal needs a strong probe

Sen. Carl Levin's name has come up in the IRS controversy. (J. Scott Applewhite / AP)

Republicans believe they have a smoking gun in their IRS probe, and that itís pointing directly at Michigan Sen. Carl Levin.

Democrats are sticking with their storyline that the scandal is all tops and no taters, manufactured by the GOP to embarrass the White House.

And the media is reporting it as yet another incremental development in a typical political scuffle, without doing much digging into what Americans really want to know: Can the IRS, arguably the most fearsome branch of the federal government, be manipulated by the party in power to punish their political enemies?

Thereís enough smoke to merit that question being removed from the partisan fray and independently investigated. Damning scandal or not, what we already know should make any American, regardless of their political bent, fearful. Because if Democrats are doing it to Republicans today, you can bet your life Republicans will do it to Democrats tomorrow.

When it was first discovered that the Internal Revenue Service targeted tea party and other groups for special scrutiny prior to President Barack Obamaís 2012 re-election bid, the administration expressed the obligatory shock and dismay, but dismissed it as the work of a few rogue agents in Cincinnati.

They relied on their pals in the press to take the story no further than that. Fortunately, the media is a multi-headed beast today, and conservative reporters werenít about to let this dog lie.

Over the past year, evidence has steadily oozed out suggesting the IRS was engaged in a much more systematic campaign to delay and deny nonprofit status to conservative groups, and that the plotting and execution extended to Washington.

Earlier this month, the Republican-controlled House, which has been investigating with no help from the administration, cited top IRS official Lois Lerner for contempt for taking the 5th in testimony before Congress. So far, Attorney General Eric Holder has shown no interest in prosecuting her on the charge.

Thatís a dereliction on his part. Lerner obviously has pertinent information about what the IRS was really doing. The American people should know it, too.

The latest twist wraps the scandal around Levin. Emails released under court order to the conservative Judicial Watch disclose that Levin hounded the IRS to investigate nonprofits engaged in political activity.

Of the 12 groups Levin expressed interest in, 10 were conservative and two were liberal. His office contends those two liberal groups prove the senator had no political motivation.

But we should be concerned about how readily the IRS responded to Levinís dogged insistence that it investigate the nonprofits on his list. If there is any wall in Washington, it should be between individual congressmen and the IRS.

Neither members of Congress nor the president should be allowed to coerce IRS into harassing their political enemies. Thatís a direct assault on the First Amendment.

Levin heads the Senateís investigations committee, and has promised to dive into the allegations against the IRS. But now that his own hands are sticky, heís not the right person to lead the probe.

The only way weíll know for certain whether the IRS was used as a political tool is through an independent investigation.

nfinley@detroitnews.com
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