government transparency

...now browsing by category

 

One Cheer for an IRS Man?

Thursday, April 3rd, 2014

I’m hesitating. But given the way many IRS honchos have too often behaved throughout the agency’s history, including today — yes, I’ll applaud Randolph Thrower for saying no to a President.

Thrower died in March at the age of 100 as the “IRS Chief Who Resisted Nixon.” He had headed the agency from 1969 to 1971, before getting fired for challenging the administration’s political hardball. Nixon henchman John Ehrlichman delivered the pink slip.

White House staffers were pressuring the IRS to audit various activists, journalists and congressmen. These were persons that Nixon felt deserved government harassment.

Too often, IRS officers have been all too eager to politicize tax procedures at the behest of those in power. Not Thrower. He may have been guilty of naïveté. When asking to meet with the President, he said he felt sure that Nixon knew nothing of the pressure coming from underlings and would repudiate “any suggestion of the introduction of political influence into the IRS.”

Thrower’s request for a meeting was denied. The record shows that Nixon soon demanded his removal and also that the next IRS commissioner be a “ruthless [s.o.b.].”

My problem with Randolph Thrower is his failure to say anything publicly about why he was fired. By speaking out, he might have prevented some of the evildoing the White House would perpetrate over the next several years.

He owed that much to his employer: us.

This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.

The Tax Agency and the Tortoise

Wednesday, August 28th, 2013

We are indebted to a publisher of tax information called Tax Analysts for its efforts to make the Internal Revenue Service slightly more accountable.

The IRS finds itself beleaguered, sort of, by scandal — the fallout from their practice of impeding applications for tax-exempt status of Tea Party and other “patriot” and “constitutionalist” groups. But the agency doesn’t always cooperate with investigations of its conduct.

Using the Freedom of Information Act, Tax Analysts has sued the IRS to obtain all materials used since 2009 to train Cincinnati personnel in the art of handling applications for tax-exempt status.

Folks at the IRS had at first “agreed” to comply with the FOIA request for these instructions ─ which will shed light on what, exactly, employees have been told at various times about how to deal with applicants of various ideological hue. But the agency kept dithering, first telling Tax Analysts that it would supply the stuff pronto, then saying it needed more time; then saying the same when the next-named comply-by date arrived; etc., ad infinitum.

Like the ever-slowing competitor to Zeno’s tortoise, the IRS found it impossible to ever cross the finish line or actually supply any documents.

Yet these guys slap us with penalties if we’re late with the taxes. . . .

Well, Tax Analysts has seen the IRS’s delaying tactics before. So now the matter is in court. Sooner or later we shall learn whether the agency’s own written instructions counsel ideological discrimination, or these instructions are untainted by such but have been flouted by IRS officers.

This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.

The National Confessional

Friday, August 23rd, 2013

Secrecy in diplomacy and intelligence-gathering is supposed to protect the nation. But secrecy also protects bad policy . . . including great crimes that undermine our security.

This week, the National Security Archive released onto the Web the first official admission that agents of the United States government brought down — by assassination and violent coup — Iran’s democratically elected president, Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq, 60 years ago:

The explicit reference to the CIA’s role appears in a copy of an internal history, The Battle for Iran, dating from the mid-1970s. The agency released a heavily excised version of the account in 1981 . . . but it blacked out all references to TPAJAX, the code name for the U.S.-led operation. Those references appear in the latest release.

The sunsetting of the secrecy provisions on the information finally provides sunlight, transparency, to this crucial moment in history.

Crucial, because it involved public American support for Masaddeq’s successor, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, “the Shah of Iran.” The Shah became quite brutal in his embrace of “modernism” and (this is hard to write with a straight face) “Western values,” including the suppression of religious dissidents. This led to the fundamentalist Muslim backlash, with Mid-East Muslims widely interpreting American intervention and support for the Shah as both imperialistic and anti-Islamic, setting up the current “clash of civilizations” . . . in which neither side ends up looking good.

It’s interesting to note that much of the secrecy about the event not only covered up American crimes, but British ones.

America’s foreign policy seems so un-American. In so many ways.

This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.

Illinois Pension Ills

Wednesday, July 3rd, 2013

When it comes to the full faith and credit of the Great State of Illinois, three major credit rating companies judge it the lowest in the union. The problem is that state politicians made pension promises they didn’t pay for and still aren’t.

How bad is it? Illinois’s total unfunded pension liability now tops $200 billion dollars – that’s roughly 250 percent of the state’s annual revenue. And growing.

But take, heart!

Gov. Pat Quinn just said that the massive pension shortfall will grow at a slower pace than previously thought, $5 million (instead of $17 million) a day.

Whoopee!

Folks at the Illinois Policy Institute are a little mystified by this pronouncement, though. The projection seems based more on wishes and hope than the straight dope. Besides, “this isn’t the first time the state has predicted that the growth in the state’s unfunded liability would slow,” Institute Senior Fellow Jonathan Ingram writes, noting that “the exact same prediction was made last year based on the actuarial projections made in fiscal year 2011. The systems predicted that the unfunded liability would grow by ‘only’ $5.3 billion in fiscal year 2012.”

The conventional wisdom blames too many years of the legislature shorting the annual payments to the five public-employee retirement funds.

Another way to look at it is simply that politicians are a whole lot better at promising than delivering, and defined benefit (rather than defined contribution) pensions are too tempting to trust to any politician.

This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.

Welcome Debate?

Monday, June 24th, 2013

As the weekend began, we learned that the Obama Administration had formally charged Edward Snowden with espionage, theft and stealing cable TV. Snowden is the guy who leaked classified information about massive and unconstitutional National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance programs and then fled to Hong Kong.

President Obama said he welcomed the debate touched off by Snowden’s disclosures to The Washington Post and Glenn Greenwald of the Guardian in London . . . but apparently not enough to welcome the man himself.

Sunday, we awoke to hear of Snowden’s new travel plans. Clearly, there is surveillance! Snowden left Hong Kong and flew to Moscow. From there, he appears headed to Ecuador, where he is requesting asylum.

Having just turned 30, Mr. Snowden, a former Central Intelligence Agency employee, then employee of Booz Allen Hamilton, a contractor for the NSA, remains mysterious. Whatever we learn about Snowden, though, I agree with Greenwald’s judgment: “What he has done is an immense public service, an act of real patriotism, to inform his fellow citizens about things the government has been doing of great consequence in the dark . . .”

A separate story over the weekend drives that point home: “President Obama held his first-ever meeting Friday with the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB) — the group charged with ensuring that the executive branch balances privacy and civil liberties needs with its national security efforts.”

Were it not for that Snowden fellow, would this group “charged with ensuring” our rights and privacy have ever even met?

Don’t bother asking. The story reports, “The White House declined to comment on the meeting.”

This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.

Google or Government?

Wednesday, June 12th, 2013

The ugly fact: our government is capturing all of our phone records. It reportedly is grabbing our credit card information, as well tracking us online. The latest “defense” of this practice? Such mined data’s no worse than the information we voluntarily provide Google or Facebook or other big, bad corporations.

This after-the-fact rationalization comes up short, however, missing that crucial “voluntary” aspect, whereby we get to choose what information we give to a corporation, including providing none at all. That’s not how the National Security Agency works. The NSA just grabs our information without our consent.

What other possible differences might there be?

There’s the crucial matter of degree, too. “The government possesses the ultimate executive power,” argued The Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder, author of Deep State, appearing on “All In with Chris Hayes” on MSNBC. “I mean, it can jail you, it can detain you, it can kill you.”

“Even though the Obama campaign and Apple . . . know more about me than perhaps members of my family, and probably the government,” Ambinder added, “what the government can do with that information is much different than what a corporation can do. They can make me buy something or vote for someone; the government can imprison me.”

Mr. Ambinder is absolutely correct . . . except for his ridiculous statement that campaigns can “make” you vote for their candidate or that corporations can “make” you buy their products. The crucial difference is between the arts of persuasion (including tempting, cajoling, nudging) on the one hand, and sheer homicidal force coupled with kleptomaniacal thievery on the other.

This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.

The Block Stops Here

Tuesday, May 14th, 2013

We were initially told that the IRS had apologized to Tea Party and patriot groups for blocking them from non-profit tax status.

But there has been no apology.

Instead, last Friday, Lois Lerner, the head of the tax-exempt division of the Internal Revenue Service, confided to a group of tax attorneys at an American Bar Association conference in Washington. She admitted that the IRS had indeed been guilty of unfairly delaying and blocking Tea Party and conservative groups from establishing tax-exempt organizations, as these dissident groups had been complaining about for years.

Who was to blame? Only mere “low-level employees” — no senior management, heaven forfend.

Then it was disclosed that senior IRS muckety-mucks actually knew in 2011 — well before the IRS commissioner assured Congress that the agency wasn’t doing precisely what it was doing. Now, latest disclosures put the beginning of the political bias policy all the way back to 2010.

Of course, the IRS vehemently denies that politics played any role.

And what about Barack “buck-stops-here” Obama?

“I first learned about it from the same news reports that I think most people learned about this,” the president said in response to a question, adding, “I think it was on Friday.”

In denial, the president spun, “If, in fact, IRS personnel engaged in the kind of practices that had been reported on and were intentionally targeting conservative groups” and “if you’ve got the IRS operating in anything less than a neutral and non-partisan way, then . . . it is contrary to our traditions.”

Well, if these ifs weren’t so (traditionally?) evasive, we might take the prez seriously.

This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.