CNN Legal Analyst Scoffs at Notion of 'Earth-Shaking' IRS Scandal, Calls for 'a Little Less Hysteria'

CNN's senior legal analyst thinks there's too much "hysteria" over the IRS scandal and that it really may not have been that big of a story to begin with. He argued thus on the 11 a.m. ET hour of Thursday's Newsroom.

CNN's Jeffrey Toobin's spin went as follows: "the IRS is required by law to investigate these organizations," and "it's not clear that there were liberal organizations applying, certainly, in the numbers that the Tea Party were," and "A lot of these organizations that are complaining wound up getting approved for 501(c)(4) status. So what are their damages?" Ergo, "we need to know a lot more, but we need perhaps a little less hysteria, too."

Toobin pooh poohed the significance of the scandal:

"I think, you know, this is a big Washington phenomenon at the moment. But the notion that this is some earth-shaking scandal and that responsible people should be talking about impeachment seems, frankly, ridiculous, at this point."

So here is why Toobin is wrong and, frankly, sounds like a liberal hack:

The IRS didn't just do its job and "investigate" the "politics" of conservative groups. Reports show that the agency went way beyond its bounds in asking them for Facebook posts, donor rolls, and personal information on both donors and group members.

Yes, liberal groups were applying for non-profit status, and were actually granted approval while conservative groups were hounded by the agency, delaying or even inhibiting their approval. Wednesday's front-page USA Today report states that liberals got "a pass" from the agency while "Tea Party groups" were "put on hold."

Conservative groups may have been granted approval, but others weren't so fortunate. And those that were endured months-long battles with the IRS costing them both employee hours and money. "So what are their damages?" Toobin asked with a shrug. Well, Commentary magazine's John Podhoretz explained first-hand the consequences of fighting a "chilling" IRS investigation from 2009 that alleged Commentary openly advocated the candidacy of John McCain in 2008:

"Disproving the false charge, which we did eventually in part by literally printing out the 2 million words that had appeared on this site in 2008 and sending them in many boxes to the IRS to show that the words in which Lieberman said he was supporting McCain were essentially a part per million, cost us tens of thousands of dollars and dozens upon dozens of hours of lost work time. The inquiry, which never should have been brought, was closed. But talking to lawyers and strategizing and the like in such a circumstance make the experience an ordeal that leaves you a bit shell-shocked—which is, of course, the point."

Below is a transcript of the segment, which aired on CNN Newsroom on May 16 11:19 a.m. EDT:

[11:19]

JIM ACOSTA: But having said all of that, Ashleigh, there were a lot of skeptical Tea Party leaders here at this news conference. Many of them offered their own personal stories of how they went through years of dealing with the IRS, trying to get the tax-exempt status for their groups. And one woman I talked to, a homeschool mom she called herself, said that her organization receives really no donations, but yet she had to go through question after question from the IRS in order to get her tax-exempt status and they feel that all of that is unfair. Ashleigh?

ASHLEIGH BANFIELD: Jim Acosta, thank you. Don't go away, because I want to bring in Jeffrey Toobin on this very issue. Jeff, you are hearing Jim Acosta's reporting and Michelle Bachmann's concerns, Dana Bash's concerns as well, and the hearing that's scheduled at the Ways and Means tomorrow. And what it all stems from is this issue of what it means to be a 501(c)(4) and who goes for this kind of status. And how many on either side of this equation may have come up against road blocks with the IRS. So far we're hearing a lot about conservative groups. But we're also starting to hear about some of the more progressive or liberal groups as well. Do we need to all take a big step back and wait for the numbers before the accusations continue to fly so fast?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN senior legal analyst: Right. I think, you know, this is a big Washington phenomenon at the moment. But the notion that this is some earth-shaking scandal and that responsible people should be talking about impeachment seems, frankly, ridiculous, at this point. Remember, no one is entitled to be a 501(c)(4) organization. You have to be involved in a public welfare organization. That's what 501(c)(4) means under the law, a public welfare organization. You can't be a purely political operation and be a 501(c)(4).

So the IRS is required by law to investigate these organizations and say, what do you do? And ask, you know, are you political or are you public welfare? That's the IRS's job. Now, it is inappropriate and wrong and possibly even illegal if you only scrutinize conservatives but not liberals. But it's not clear that there were liberal organizations applying, certainly, in the numbers that the Tea Party were. So I think everybody needs to take a deep breath. Everybody needs to figure out what went on here. A lot of these organizations that are complaining wound up getting approved for 501(c)(4) status. So what are their damages? Again, we need to know a lot more, but we need perhaps a little less hysteria, too.

BANFIELD: Well, without question, I think the facts are critical and hopefully those will start coming out, starting with maybe tomorrow's hearing. Who knows.

Matt Hadro
Matt Hadro
Matt Hadro was a News Analyst for the Media Research Center's News Analysis Division from 2010 through early 2014