Profiles in Courage at the IRS (Really)

By :: March 24th, 2014

Let’s take a break from fake IRS political scandals to consider how the Service handled a real scandal 45 years ago.  Randolph W. Thrower was IRS commissioner from 1969 to 1971. The Nixon White House insisted that the IRS audit the president’s enemies. Thrower, a lifelong Republican, refused to do it. According to the Washington Post, he also refused to hire Nixon dirty tricksters John Caulfield and G. Gordon Liddy.

In 1971, Thrower asked to meet with Nixon, believing that the president would be appalled at the attempt to use the nonpartisan agency as a political tool. Instead of a meeting, Nixon aide and future Watergate convict John Erlichman called to tell him he was fired.

After Mr. Thrower was thrown out, Nixon told top aides the kind of IRS commissioner he wanted. 

I want to be sure he is a ruthless son of a bitch that he will do what he is told, that every income tax return I want to see I see, that he will go after our enemies and not go after our friends. … Now it's as simple as that. If he isn't, he doesn't get the job. We've got to have somebody like that for a change in this place. (Source: White House tapes as reported by New York Times.)

President Nixon was also disappointed with Thrower’s replacement. After rejecting the highly respected John Nolan on the grounds that he had too much integrity to do the president’s bidding, Nixon picked Johnnie M. Walters, a South Carolina tax lawyer who was an assistant to Attorney General John Mitchell. Walters also turned out to have a stubborn streak of integrity. He put John Dean’s enemies list in a vault and didn’t take it out until the Congressional committee investigating Watergate asked for it.

Nixon complained about Walters too:  “A lot of our people come in here and they start sucking around the Georgetown set, all of a sudden they're just as bad as the others.”

There is another possibility, which is that people at the IRS try to do their job—often under difficult conditions—and that flows all the way up to the commissioner (or vice versa).

Thrower died last Thursday at the age of 100. (IRS commissioners seem to be rewarded for their suffering at the hands of opportunistic pols with exceptionally long lives.) According to the Washington Post

A few years after he left his post as IRS commissioner, Mr. Thrower … visited IRS headquarters on business…  As word spread that he was in the building, IRS staffers emerged from their offices, spontaneously applauding as Mr. Thrower walked through the halls.

Here’s to IRS Commissioners and their employees, who mostly behave much better than the policymakers who make their jobs impossible. 

Follow me on twitter.


  1. Jack Gallagher  ::  6:34 pm on March 24th, 2014:

    Mr. Burman,

    The facts as we know them so far indicate that conservative groups’ 1024 applications were given extra scrutiny by the Service and that such scrutiny was directed at least as far up as the Chief Counsel’s office. It is also a fact that congress asked the IRS if targeting of conservative groups was occurring (because they were getting complaints from constituents). In later congressional hearings Commissioner Schulman was re-asked this question and point blank answered that they Service had indeed investigated this question and determined that no targeting had been going on (note: he didn’t say “to the best of my knowledge”; he said “no we looked into it and determined no targeting had occurred”). That is false testimony.

    Also factual is that Lois Lerner later apologized for targeting conservative groups (which Mr. Schulman said hadn’t happened) at the now infamous ABA conference during the Q&A.

    Also factual is that no liberal group, to date, has come forward to complain that their 1024 application was given unwarranted scrutiny. If such a group exists, Mr. Cummings would be doing photo-ops and joint interviews with them with CNN and the New York Times – demanding that Daryl Issa allow them to testify before the House oversight committee.

    Also factual is that Lois Lerner admitted to sharing donor information of certain conservative 501(c)(4) organizations with the Federal Election Commission – an actual violation of law (section 6103.

    You can retain the opinion that these facts do not amount to a scandal, but they aren’t fake.

  2. AMTbuff  ::  7:16 pm on March 24th, 2014:

    I would like to believe that an equally blatant attempt to persecute enemies of a Democratic President would be rebuffed by the IRS. I really would like to believe that. The evidence weighs in the other direction:

    1. The IRS allowed itself to be used as a surrogate for the Federal Election Commission, and
    2. The IRS has assented to more than one departure from the letter of the law of Obamacare, rubber stamping all executive amendments to this most partisan of laws.

    The available data from Nixon onward supports a simple model: The IRS will accede to the partisan requests of a Democratic President but not those of a Republican President. This model makes sense if the IRS sees the Republican party as its natural enemy.

    Perhaps President Obama’s executive overreach will continue to expand sufficiently that we will finally know which hypothesis is correct. Or perhaps a Republican President will order the IRS to index capital gains for inflation and we will have a different sort of test of the IRS’s willingness to bend the law for any President.

  3. Len Burman  ::  8:58 pm on March 24th, 2014:

    Mr. Gallagher,

    Thanks for your comment. As far as I can tell, the IRS is guilty of incredibly poor judgement more than actual malfeasance. This is from Howard Gleckman’s blog post on the issue back in May.

    Yet, despite dark conspiracy theories, TIGTA found no evidence of political meddling. Despite allegations that the agency singled out tea party groups for special scrutiny, of the nearly 300 cases the IRS labeled potentially political, only one-third were identified as tea party or other conservative organizations. And not one of those 300 cases, including the conservative groups, had its application for tax-exempt status denied, though some are still pending.

    However, the TIGTA report also seems to confirm a long-standing unwillingness by top IRS officials to publicly acknowledge the mess. As often happens in Washington, the coverup may turn out to be far more problematic than the “crime.” There is some irony afoot when the same government agency that demands full transparency from 150 million taxpayers stonewalls requests for information about its own operations from Congress and news organizations.

    The biggest problem is that Congress asked them to do an impossible job–monitor tens of thousands of 501(c)(4) groups for political activity, vaguely defined by statute with virtually no resources to accomplish the task. This is a case where the IRS should have said what the president has said several times about Obamacare–chosen not to implement the statute–but they felt that they needed to try.

    I have known a number of IRS Commissioners, both Democrat and Republican, and they have all been remarkable public servants who have put much more lucrative careers on hold to take the thankless job of trying to manage America’s most reviled bureaucracy. I’ve also known a number of exceptional people (including my mother) who have worked their butts off for the American people within that bureaucracy.

    Congress should stop giving the IRS impossible tasks and should resist the urge to treat good public servants as whipping boys (and girls).

  4. Michael Bindner  ::  4:34 am on March 25th, 2014:

    Let me also add that it is standard operating procedure – indeed it is often required – for high dollar and controversial matters to be seen by a departmental cousel. That was my experience in both the Department of Labor and the Department of Energy.

  5. Michael Bindner  ::  4:38 am on March 25th, 2014:

    RIP Commissioner Thrower, who would not countenance tyranny on his watch. He is an example to all bureaucrats (including those outside IRS) who put law above the whims of the President’s political underlings. If Nixon had been smart (or well served), he would have listened. The irony is that if no one says no to stupid ideas, they often blow up in the face of the POTUS – as well as those who did not have the courage to say no.

  6. Tax Roundup, 3/25/14: Shaky foundations can be costly. And: monitors! « Roth & Company, P.C  ::  9:55 am on March 25th, 2014:

    […] Burman, Profiles in Courage at the IRS (Really) (TaxVox).  It’s a good post, once you get past the manifestly false statement that the […]

  7. Michael S Cash, EA  ::  2:50 pm on March 25th, 2014:

    I was in the IRS for 35 years but not Exempt Organizations but on their behalf if an application for the Tea Party anything came in advertised as being a public benefit educational organization I would immediately do a double take and have a knee jerk reaction that the education was about how everything the Democratic Party and the moderate wing of the Republican Party was leading the nation down the Socialist path. I’m confident that my knee would jerk in the right–make that correct–direction. I regularily encountered people who called themself patriots. Uniformly they were people who hated their government. I’m sure that the employees giving extra scrutiny to Tea Party applications found the same thing.

  8. Mark Wynn  ::  2:47 am on March 27th, 2014:

    … then you, according to US Law, would have been fired and prosecuted for criminal activities. Lucky you ….

  9. Mark Wynn  ::  2:55 am on March 27th, 2014:

    Recent emails and other evidence has made your noble assumptions moot. IRS employees, in DC, with continual communication with White House operatives, did indeed commit crimes under Section 6103. The latest stonewalling, by Lois Lehner first agreeing to testify and then again pleading the 5th, and by the current IRS head stating the agency will take “years” to comply with Congress’ request for the pertinent emails, proves the lie.

  10. Off-shore or On-shore, There Are Taxes to Be Paid.  ::  2:02 am on March 28th, 2014:

    […] well as its Fiscal Year 2013 databook. And for a not-at-all-dry read, TPC’s Len Burman offers an ode to IRS heroes, especially  the late Randolph Thrower, IRS Commissioner from 1969-1971 who resisted White House […]

  11. Lora Bowman  ::  3:23 pm on April 24th, 2014:

    AMEN and AMEN. Government jobs are thankless. The IRS employees are exposed to very defensive people. A mans money is sometimes like a God and the IRS employee walks into a hornets nest every day they are “in the field”. The bonus is to keep them from taking bribes from the people they are about to audit (which is a great temptation).

  12. Royce Phillips  ::  10:46 am on May 9th, 2014:

    Ms. Bowman:

    FYI. Every job is thankless. If you work in the private sector, you know that there are no great throngs of people lavishly praising you for your work. The assumption is that the reward is the customer’s business. No different from the government. Taxpayers pay for the services they receive from government sector employees which, by all accounts, is a fair wage in comparison to their private sector counterparts. Additionally, private sector employees do not enjoy the greater degree of job stability as do government sector employees. Benefits are likewise better, as a general rule. I have been in both the private sector and government sector. One last point. Private sector is made up of investors who risk personal financial resources to provide wages and wealth, and pay the taxes that fund government operations, including wages.