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By Harold Hutchison

While most of the country has been focused on President Trump’s battle with the Wuhan coronavirus often called “COVID-19,” news broke about the Internal Revenue Service launching a criminal probe of NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre. According to a report by the Wall Street Journal, the IRS is looking into claims by New York Attorney General Letitia James that LaPierre concealed millions of dollars in income.

James made the allegations in an August 6 lawsuit seeking the dissolution of the gun-rights group, which filed a federal countersuit in the Northern District of New York. In those documents, the organization claimed that Eric Schneiderman, James’s predecessor as attorney general, warned the group about the potential for investigations as retaliation for the group’s role in Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 presidential election. In fact, since James filed her suit, the ACLU and Jonathan Turley have both criticized her actions.

The pro-Second Amendment group also cited statements James made on the campaign trail in its counter-suit, including labeling the gun-rights group a “terrorist organization” and “criminal enterprise.” In one article cited by the NRA, James also boasted of actions she took as public advocate of New York City to target the gun-rights group, including claims to have “notified the SEC with regard to investors who invest in these banks that these products of death.”

The news of the criminal investigation came days after a federal district court in Tennessee dismissed most of the claims launched by disaffected donors against the NRA and LaPierre, who has led the NRA since 1991. News of the investigation into LaPierre, when combined with the recent series of articles by the New York Times that delved into data from President Trump’s tax returns, raises the question about whether the IRS is again being weaponized against political targets.

The articles from the Times had a lot of details and led to many people asking a lot of questions about how Trump paid so little in income tax. But there is one question that nobody in the media seems to be asking in the context of the reports that were touted as bombshells: What was that tax data even doing in the hands of the New York Times?

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The Daily Wire reports that the authors of the New York Times report claim that they got the data from sources who had “legal access” to it. This is a dodge – and one that obscures one crucial fact: The data the Times has was, in all likelihood, illegally leaked to the “paper of record.”

Moving past the New York Times dodging a very uncomfortable question with answers that would be incriminating to some degree, those same answers matter because the Internal Revenue Service is given immense power surrounding the legal requirement that Americans file their tax returns every April 15.

When you file your taxes, you don’t just send the tax return as part of the ritual. You also have to send in supporting documentation to go along with the return. The documentation is needed to make sure people are paying their fair share. But when Americans send that data in, they have the expectation that it will be kept private, whether the person in question is President Trump or your next-door neighbor. The IRS, on its own website, promises Americans that their data is kept confidential, and explicitly outlines those circumstances in which the agency does have to reveal the information. These rules were tightened in the wake of abuses carried out by Richard Nixon.

When that data is wrongly given out to anyone, a serious invasion of privacy has taken place. There are big-time consequences for this, too: Under 26 USC 7213, most cases of illegal disclosure can land a person up to five years in prison or a $5,000 fine if convicted in a court of law.

Sadly, this leak to the New York Times is not the first one involving President Trump’s tax data. In 2017, a portion of his 2005 tax returns were leaked to a journalist who went on Rachel Maddow’s show. Maddow made a big deal of those returns on her show, albeit it was widely seen as a bust outside of her fan-base. At the time, Fox News noted the question about whether laws were broken. Maddow retreated to claiming that Trump himself leaked the returns during an appearance on The View.

This phenomenon of abusive leaks has not been limited to President Trump. During the 2012 campaign, the Form 990 for the National Organization for Marriage, a non-profit group that supported various efforts to define marriage as being between a man and a woman, was leaked. According to the Washington Free Beacon, the group’s 2008 return with an unredacted list of donors found its way to the Human Rights Campaign. The group later sued, and in the end, the IRS was ordered to pay the National Organization for Marriage $50,000, but the damage had been done.

This was part of the larger scandal surrounding the IRS targeting conservative groups, notably the Tea Party. The American Enterprise Institute released a study in December 2012 revealing that the Tea Party had mobilized anywhere from 3 to 6 million new votes during the 2010 midterms. A Real Clear Markets commentary by the author of that study extrapolated that the IRS actions potentially suppressed between 5 million and 8.5 million votes in the 2012 election, more than enough to swing the presidential race to Mitt Romney.

Despite efforts to pass the whole thing off as “mismanagement” or to even claim that it was all a conspiracy theory, evidence exists that there was high-level involvement in the targeting. In 2014, Judicial Watch released documents indicating that the targeting was directed from IRS headquarters. That same year, it was revealed that the agency handed information on True the Vote, a non-profit working to improve the integrity of American elections, to then-Representative Elijah Cummings.

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Despite efforts by the IRS to avoid being held accountable, which drew a rebuke from the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, the truth eventually came out to a degree. In 2018, the Washington Times reported that a judge approved a settlement between Tea Party groups and the IRS. However, the agency never admitted wrongdoing. True the Vote also settled with the IRS that year, with Breitbart News reporting that this settlement did see an admission of wrongdoing, and a judge not only awarded the group legal fees, but added a “bad faith” enhancement to the group’s reimbursement. But the deposition of Lois Lerner remains under seal.

With the news of the probe of Wayne LaPierre, could abuse of the IRS’s powers for political purposes happen? That is very possible, especially considering the fact that Joe Biden was the vice president when the targeting took place, and he is now running for president. In addition, one of the people Biden has said would have a prominent role in his administration, Beto O’Rourke, hinted at targeting the tax-exempt status of some churches. Add the fact that Elizabeth Warren, who could be Secretary of the Treasury in a Biden Administration, included using the IRS to attack the NRA as part of her platform, and it is quite possible we could see the IRS target opponents of the Left again.

After all, if this can happen to Donald Trump and Wayne LaPierre, how safe can average citizens who don’t agree with left-wing causes really feel?

Harold Hutchison has nearly two decades of experience covering a variety of topics, including politics, national security affairs, foreign policy, Second Amendment issues, and sports. He has been published in numerous media outlets, including National Review, the Daily Caller, the Patriot Post, Ammoland.com, and the Washington Examiner.