The ongoing scandal involving IRS targeting of right-wing groups has drawn inevitable comparisons to the Nixon administration’s efforts to use the tax agency for political purposes.
But congressional investigators nearly four decades ago concluded that those plans, though hatched in high places, never came to fruition.
The unwillingness of then-Internal Revenue Service Commissioner Johnnie Mac Walters to yield to pressure from the White House was one of the reasons why.
In an interview with The Greenville News, the Hartsville native, now 93, recalled being pressured to use the agency for the political ends of the Nixon administration.
In 1972, White House Counsel John Dean gave Mr. Walters an envelope containing an “enemies list” of about 200 prominent Democrats.
“I said to him, ‘John, do you know what you’re doing?’ ” Walters recalled, in comments quoted by the News on Sunday. “He said, ‘No, what do you mean?’ ”
Mr. Walters said he informed his boss, Treasury Secretary George Shultz, about the meeting, and his opposition to the plan. Mr. Shultz agreed, and the list was sealed in an envelope and placed in the commissioner’s safe.
Mr. Dean explained what the administration had in mind for the “enemies list” in a 1971 memo to Lawrence Higby, then assistant to President Nixon’s chief of staff H.R. Haldeman.
It was to “maximize the fact of our incumbency in dealing with persons known to be active in their opposition to our Administration; stated a bit more bluntly — how we can use the available federal machinery to screw our political enemies.”
“The story is interesting because the IRS wouldn’t do it,” said Tim Naftali, former director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum. “It didn’t happen, not because the White House didn’t want it to happen, but because people like Johnnie Walters said ‘no.’ ”
In the current scandal, IRS officials have acknowledged that the agency targeted Tea Party groups over their applications for tax-exempt status.
President Barack Obama has described the current abuses as “outrageous,” and there is no evidence as yet that he had any knowledge about it. The abuses date from 2010, and high-ranking agency officials apparently became aware of them as early as 2011.
“I’m distressed at what’s happening and particularly with IRS,” Mr. Walters told the News. “IRS must be run nonpolitical. Our tax system otherwise will fail and we can’t afford that.”
That’s why the current scandal must be investigated exhaustively, and those responsible punished accordingly. Congressional committees are on the case, but absent the full cooperation of IRS and other administration officials, the matter ultimately may require the attention of a special prosecutor.