One feature of petty tyrants is using the brute force of police powers to intimidate political opponents. We saw this with the IRS and Tea Party groups and the Wisconsin John Doe raids.
The WSJ puts the two together.
Wisconsin’s campaign to investigate conservative tax-exempt groups has always seemed like an echo of the IRS’s scrutiny of conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status. It turns out that may be more than a coincidence.
Former IRS tax-exempt director Lois Lerner ran the agency’s policy on conservative groups. Kevin Kennedy runs the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board (GAB) that helped prosecutors with their secret John Doe investigation of conservative groups after the 2011 and 2012 recall elections of Governor Scott Walker and state senators.
Emails we’ve seen show that between 2011 and 2013 the two were in contact on multiple occasions, sharing articles on topics including greater donor disclosure and Wisconsin’s recall elections. The emails indicate the two were also personal friends who met for dinner and kept in professional touch. “Are you available for the 25th?” Ms. Lerner wrote in January 2012. “If so, perhaps we could work two nights in a row.”
This timing is significant because those were the years when the IRS increased its harassment of conservative groups and Wisconsin prosecutors gathered information that would lead to the John Doe probe that officially opened in September 2012. Ms. Lerner’s lawyer declined comment. Mr. Kennedy said via email that “Ms. Lerner is a professional friend who I have known for more than 20 years” but declined further comment.
In an email exchange in July 2011, Mr. Kennedy sent Ms. Lerner an article in the Racine Journal-Times on the declining relevance of public campaign financing amid more private and “special interest” money. “Note the last paragraph where the paper supports more transparency,” Mr. Kennedy writes to Ms. Lerner. “The Legislature has killed our corporate disclosure rules.”
Mr. Kennedy’s GAB work also became ammunition for other investigators pursuing high-profile conservative nonprofits, including Texas-based True the Vote. In an October 2012 letter to True the Vote founder Catherine Engelbrecht, Maryland Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings cited the Wisconsin GAB’s criticism of True the Vote’s methods reviewing petitions to recall Mr. Walker and said the results “would not have survived legal challenges.”
In a memo to “Interested Parties” in 2012, Obama for America General Counsel Bob Bauer praised Mr. Kennedy’s GAB for having taken “swift action in the aftermath of [True the Vote’s] involvement in the June recall elections.” Mr. Bauer described the GAB’s response as evidence that “Elected officials in many swing states are not waiting and taking their chances that True the Vote acts to disrupt the electoral process on November 6th or during the early voting period.”
After filing for tax-exempt status for True the Vote, Ms. Englebrecht says she was subjected to two IRS business audits, two personal audits, and was contacted several times by the FBI and inspected by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
The IRS-GAB nexus also ran the other direction, as the state agency sought to enlist the IRS in its burgeoning theory of improper campaign coordination by conservative 501(c) groups in Wisconsin. We know Mr. Kennedy was communicating with Ms. Lerner at the time and that he was also keeping his Doe team apprised of his communications with the IRS.
Sources tell us that in 2012 and 2013 John Doe investigators asked the IRS to look into a conservative group that was among the primary targets of the Wisconsin Doe investigation. The IRS doesn’t appear to have followed up, but the request shows Wisconsin prosecutors saw their pursuit of independent groups as part of a common agenda with national Democrats.
Did GAB pitch the IRS on the theory that conservative groups were criminally violating tax law? In October 2014 the Madison-based leftist group Center for Media and Democracy filed a complaint with the IRS accusing the Wisconsin Club for Growth of violating its tax-exempt status by engaging in political activity. To support its complaint, the group referred to Doe-related documents that had already been reviewed in court and rejected as evidence of improper political activity.
These interconnections matter because they reveal that the use of tax and campaign laws to limit political speech was part of a larger and systematic Democratic campaign. Speaking at the University of Wisconsin in 2010, President Obama sent his own political message to investigators.
“Thanks to a recent Supreme Court decision, [Republicans] are being helped along this year, as I said, by special interest groups that are allowed to spend unlimited amounts of money on attack ads. They don’t even have to disclose who’s behind the ads,” he said. “You’ve all seen the ads. Every one of these groups is run by Republican operatives. Every single one of them—even though they’re posing as nonprofit groups with names like Americans for Prosperity, or the Committee for Truth in Politics.”
Conservative nonprofits like the Wisconsin Club for Growth and Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce were later subpoenaed and bound by secrecy orders as their fundraising all but ceased. Liberals worked together to turn the IRS and the GAB into partisan political weapons.