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June 21, 2013

The Cincinnati lie

The Internal Revenue Service hadn’t spoken four sentences about its targeting of conservative groups before it blamed “our line people in Cincinnati.”

Those were the words of Director of Exempt Organizations Lois Lerner on May 10, when she acknowledged the misconduct in an answer to a question at an American Bar Association conference. In a session with reporters later that day, she famously admitted that she is not good at math. It turns out that she is not good at geography, either.

The locus of the IRS scandal, it has steadily emerged, is not in Cincinnati but in Washington, where lawyers and supervisors were aware of and directed the special scrutiny for tea party groups applying for 501(c)(4) status. This has falsified a line of defense that the administration and its allies have held as assiduously as Lt. John Chard’s troops at Rorke’s Drift.

White House press secretary Jay Carney explained: “There were line employees at the IRS who improperly targeted conservative groups.” Rep. Jim McDermott of Washington state summed it all up thusly: “This small group of people in the Cincinnati office screwed up.” James Carville still holds out the possibility that the whole mess was caused by “some people in the Cincinnati office.”

They have made “Cincinnati” a byword for scandal. By their account, there’s no explaining Cincinnatians. They are a strange and foreign people, noted for their bristling hostility to the tea party and their cussed resistance to direction from above. It’s a wonder the IRS is even able to maintain an office in Cincinnati, given the recklessness of workers in that remote southern Ohio city.

The Cincinnati explanation has many virtues. It serves to minimize the scandal by blaming it on what sounds like a bureaucratic backwater, and the Cincinnati IRS office is about 505 miles from the White House, 504.2 more than the IRS headquarters in Washington.

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