Why the IRS Scandal Needs a Special Prosecutor

Neither Democratic or Republican cherry-picked findings will restore the public's trust.

The Big Man. President Obama's picks are safe and edgy, smart and sometimes meh. (National Journal)

You're being spun, America. On the vital question of whether the Internal Revenue Service incompetently or corruptly targeted conservative groups, both the White House and GOP are rushing to judgment "“ and they want you to follow like lemmings.

Don't do it.

Nearly six weeks ago, President Obama responded to an inspector general's report detailing the targeting, which had been long denied by the IRS.  "The misconduct that it uncovered is inexcusable.  It's inexcusable, and Americans are right to be angry about it, and I am angry about it," Obama said, vowing to "hold the responsible parties accountable."

The IG report was based on a cursory audit. It was not a full-fledged investigation. And yet Democrats disingenuously claimed that it exonerated the Obama administration and the president's re-election campaign from any involvement in IRS targeting.

To truly "hold the responsible parties accountable," Obama still needed a thorough and impartial inquiry led by investigators who would question witnesses under oath, and would subpoena the White House and his own re-election campaign for related emails and other documents.

He did not ask for that.

Smelling blood, the GOP-controlled House launched an investigation led by Rep. Darrell Issa of California. Never mistaken for an impartial investigator, Issa quickly declared that IRS targeting was "ordered from Washington" "“ a thinly veiled indictment of the White House. His evidence? A few cherry-picked interviews with IRS officials and an Orwellian subtext: "We're getting to proving it," Issa said. On June 3 I wrote of Issa: "Meet the best friend of a controversy-plagued Democratic White House: a demagogic Republican."

Meanwhile, Obama backed his strong words with middling action, transferring political ally Danny Werfel from the Office of Management and Budget to the IRS, where as acting commissioner Werfel would investigate his own administration.

Werfel may be a stand-up guy with a solid reputation in Washington. But the public doesn't know him. The public also doesn't trust the federal government. And the public doesn't like the IRS.

Why, after the agency's massive breach of trust, would Obama think a Werfel-led investigation will restore the public's faith?

Werfel announced Monday that instructions used by the IRS to look for applicants seeking tax-exempt status with "Tea Party" and "Patriots" in their title also included groups whose names included the word "Progressive" and "Occupy." Jonathon Weisman of The New York Times reported, "The documents appeared to back up contentions by IRS officials and some Democrats that the agency did not intend to single out conservative groups for special scrutiny."

The White House and its allies declared the scandal over. Said David Axelrod, one of Obama's longest-serving advisers, said on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" show: "I think the implication that this was some sort of scheme is falling apart."

Don't buy it. Like Issa and the GOP, Democrats are jumping to convenient conclusions based on incomplete evidence and no credible investigation.

There is a hard truth that partisans won't admit: Until more is known, we can't implicate or exonerate anybody.

If forced to guess, I would say that the IRS and its White House masters are guilty of gross incompetence, but not corruption. I based that only on my personal knowledge of "“ and respect for "“ Obama and his team. But I shouldn't have to guess. More importantly, most Americans don't have a professional relationship with Obama and his team. Many don't respect or trust government. They deserve what Obama promised nearly six weeks ago "“ accountability. They need a thorough investigation conducted by somebody other than demagogic Republicans and White House allies.

Somebody like "¦. a special prosecutor. Those words are hard for me to type two decades after an innocent land deal I covered in Arkansas turned into the runaway Whitewater investigation.

But Obama was right to be angry about the IG audit. He knows how important it is for Americans to trust the IRS, an agency that keeps our secrets, that collects taxes to run government, and that will soon implement Obama's own health care program.

What the IRS did, Obama said less than six weeks ago, was "inexcusable." That's a good word to describe what Republicans and Democrats in Washington are doing now -- cherry-picking evidence from partisan and cursory inquiries, treating Americans like lemmings and the truth like a leper.