The ongoing investigation of wrongdoing within the Internal Revenue Service should be led by an independent special counsel.
Top former and current IRS officials continue to make the rounds of congressional committees, taking a public flogging for targeting select taxpayer groups for political reasons while continuing to deny knowing much about what happened.
They profess ignorance on some topics, evade questions on others and generally profess shock at the knowledge that widespread misconduct was going on right under their noses.
Amid all the incredible answers they've given to dozens of questions since the IRS scandal broke, one classic response came from Douglas Shulman, who was running the IRS when his subordinates began giving extra scrutiny to political groups they perceived to be in opposition to President Obama.
U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow asked Shuman why he did not take immediate action to find out what was going on when he first heard of potential problems. Shulman replied, "I agree that is an issue that when someone spotted it, they should have brought it up the chain (of command). And they didn't. I don't know why."
Notice how a question about Shulman's behavior prompted an answer in which he expressed bewilderment about the behavior of an unidentified "they."
Answers like that are why these congressional hearings are going nowhere. There's no doubt that IRS officials are coming across as completely incredible, obviously doing their level best to disclose little. It's terrible public relations.
But bad PR does little damage to an otherwise bulletproof federal agency that is demonstrating just how unaccountable it is. What's needed is an outside counsel, acting independently of the U.S. Justice Department and Attorney General Eric Holder, to conduct a full-scale probe of what happened here.
Once the facts are determined and individual wrongdoers, if any, are identified, the real legal accountability can begin.
This is serious business. It's intolerable in a free society for any group of government bureaucrats to use their official power to harass or intimidate for political reasons any individuals or groups. That's clearly what happened here.
Top-level officials, almost laughably, have tried to put the lion's share of the blame on two or four (the numbers change) rogue employees in the IRS's Cincinnati office. But the questionable behavior is too widespread and the misconduct too outrageous to be the work of a handful of tax bureaucrats in one office.
Although the targets of this harassment were groups and individuals who do not share President Obama's politics, it's reassuring to see both Democratic and Republican members of Congress express outrage over what happened. They all realize that the IRS behavior is simply inconsistent with the tenets of a free society.
Unfortunately, the issue also has been the subject of political sniping. Top White House aide Dan Pfeiffer, speaking on the Sunday talk shows, charged that Republicans are trying "to drag Washington into a swamp of partisan fishing expeditions, trumped up hearings, and false allegations" while at the same time he acknowledged the IRS misconduct is indefensible.
Obviously, Republicans are trying to make political hay out of this egregious misconduct, and one forum where they can do so is in Congress. That's another reason a special counsel would be a more effective way to get to the bottom of what occurred.
There's nothing wrong with digging out all the facts, finding out who did what and when and holding those who crossed the line legally responsible. There is little room in criminal investigations for partisan posturing. President Obama should name a lawyer independent of the Justice Department to look into this matter and let the chips fall where they may.