Mostly hidden from public view, the political scandal at the Internal Revenue Service continues to grow.
When reports of the IRS's unlawful harassment of tea party groups broke back in May, agency managers sloughed off blame on "two rogue agents" in the Cincinnati office.
Ah yes, the infamous rogues running roughshod over the public — it was all their fault, the brass said. Shame on them.
That, of course, was a lie. In fact, the scandal reached the department's highest levels.
Reconfirmation of the agency's phony story came again this week when the IRS's top manager in charge of overseeing the charitable organizations involved in this controversy abruptly retired.
Lois Lerner, who has been on paid administrative leave since her disastrous appearance before a congressional committee, left the agency just one step ahead of the posse. Agency managers reviewing her conduct were blaming Lerner, at least in part, for this governmental and public relations fiasco and preparing to seek her dismissal.
Lerner takes a roughly $50,000-a-year pension with her into retirement, but her troubles are not over.
A U.S. House committee still is seeking her testimony in connection with the IRS scandal, and news reports indicate that Lerner wants a grant of immunity in exchange for telling the public what really happened.
A federal lawsuit is pending against the IRS for violating the constitutional rights of the organizations subjected to the unwarranted delays in reviewing their applications for charitable status.
Finally, the FBI is conducting a criminal investigation into the matter.
A career bureaucrat, first with the Federal Election Commission and later with the IRS, Lerner stands at the eye of this political and legal storm. But she is only one of a handful of IRS topsiders who've lost their jobs or been reassigned as a consequence of this controversy.
Rather than scapegoating two agents in Cincinnati, the people overseeing the special treatment of the tea party groups are being targeted by political operatives above them for the same treatment they gave their Midwestern underlings.
Although this scandal hasn't received much attention, it represents a serious breakdown in proper government oversight. Top officials continue to deny it, but the facts suggest that the IRS, the most powerful and invasive of all government agencies, targeted individual organizations based on their political views and subjected them to unlawful delays and scrutiny for no other purpose than to prevent them from engaging in lawful political conduct.
An email from Lerner that has come to investigators' attention quotes her as saying that the tea party applications were "extremely dangerous" and required special scrutiny. Lawful political activity by groups composed of average citizens is not "extremely dangerous," it is a fundamental tenet of our democracy.
Groups of citizens routinely organize to engage in political action, a process specifically authorized in the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment guarantee of the "right of the people to peaceably assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."
Using the power of government to suppress the activities of any particular group is a grotesque violation of everything this country is supposed to stand for, and it cannot be tolerated.
There's no doubt that Republicans are much more enthusiastic about ferreting out the details of the wrongdoing than Democrats are. That's because it's an Obama administration scandal: the GOP seeks to exploit it politically while Democrats want to ignore it.
Democrats are making a mistake by adopting this ostrich-like approach. Abuse of power is no more acceptable under the Obama administration at the IRS than it was under the Nixon administration during Watergate. The IRS scandal is an abomination that demands universal condemnation. If that does not occur, it will send an unmistakable signal that using government oversight authority for partisan purposes is just another perk of power.