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by Richard Tofel, ProPublica

ProPublica’s job is to report the news rather than to make news ourselves, but sometimes we find an article of ours to be itself a subject of public debate. Last week was such a time, when two articles we had published back in December and January became the subject of significant attention in light of the uproar over IRS oversight of the process for granting tax exemption to so-called “social welfare” groups under section 501(c)(4). We triggered that attention with a third article we published on May 13, setting out everything we knew about the circumstances of our previous stories.

Largely ignored in a public outcry last week — radio rants, Twitter storms, congressional, presidential and prosecutorial posturing– were the following:

Our pieces in December and January raised very serious questions about whether six different “dark money” political groups seeking tax exemption had made false statements on their applications. Those applications are signed under penalty of perjury. If any false statements were made knowingly, the groups — including Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS — may have committed a crime. There is no indication, however, that either the IRS or the Department of Justice has done anything since January to investigate whether such crimes were indeed committed. The groups in question happen all to be conservative. Not one congressional Republican has, to my knowledge, expressed any concern about this possible criminality.

Even more remarkably, leading public figures have asserted as fact that they know how we came to receive nine documents in the mail — statements that appear to have little basis (and in some cases, no basis at all).

The former acting Commissioner of Internal Revenue said on May 17 that the agency’s inspector general had found that the disclosure to us was “inadvertent” — we had requested the applications, but they should not have been sent to us before they were approved. The IRS followed later the same day with a statement to the same effect — but then refused to answer questions about who had made the mistake, and why they should be believed when they denied having acted intentionally (and thus likely denied committing a crime).

What really seems to have happened at the IRS in Cincinnati, across the last three presidencies (a Democrat, then a Republican, then a Democrat), and across two turns of the partisan screw in the House of Representatives, from Republicans to Democrats to Republicans again, is that the agency has been starved of resources, and badly mismanaged.

But while it took the IRS four long days to tell people about their conclusion of “inadvertence” and the same four days for ProPublica to report out the dysfunction , people like Rush Limbaugh, and their followers and fellow travelers on Twitter and in the fringe press, rushed headlong to judgment. Here’s what Limbaugh said about the mid-level federal employees at the IRS in Cincinnati on Tuesday: “The people at these government agencies have been stocked with leftists for decades now, and they’re all activists.” What evidence did he offer for this? None. How could he know that someone in a large bureaucracy, shuffling thousands of pieces of paper, didn’t make a mistake? He couldn’t, and he didn’t.

Well, you might say, that’s Limbaugh. But it wasn’t just Limbaugh. Stephen Moore writes for the Wall Street Journal (where I worked for 15 years, and where Mr. Rove also writes). Yet, he called the documents we were sent “ illegally leaked.” He knew nothing more than Limbaugh. “What is the motivation,” Moore asked, “for leaking these documents? The answer is that the left is trying to dry up the money of Tea Party and conservative groups by intimidating donors.” He noted that another group, in another case, had its donor list released. But in our case, there were no donor lists, and we had redacted the limited financial information on the forms we published. Moreover, these applications are completed with the expectation that they’ll eventually be made public — because they are when they are approved. Never mind all that; presumably no need to mention it.

And what of the investigators? Congressional committees leapt into action. The inspector general for the IRS had apparently already investigated. The president demanded another investigation; the Department of Justice said it had commenced a criminal inquiry.

Knowing that such is the way in Washington, we waited at ProPublica for someone to send us a subpoena, show up on our doorstep, or maybe just call. Nothing. Nothing since December 13, when we told the IRS we had these documents they weren’t supposed to have sent us — or since the next day, when we published that fact. Nothing before the inspector general reached his conclusion, nothing before the congressional hearings started televising their demands for answers and their righteous indignation, nothing since.

In point of fact, the investigators would have found out that we have nothing of value to them. But the fact that they didn’t even ask tells you a lot. And it reinforces the point that much of the heat generated last week on this subject is just the latest expression of Washington cynicism and its consequences — that the talk show hosts and their fellow travelers, and the representatives and senators and officials in the executive branch, aren’t really looking for answers here. They’re just putting on a show.

AP Photo/Charles Dharapak

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