WASHINGTON — Maine’s House and Senate members agreed that the Internal Revenue Service overstepped its bounds by subjecting conservative or tea party groups to more scrutiny. But the delegation was not unanimous on whether the IRS inquiries were politically motivated.

The several scandals dominating discussion on Capitol Hill this week appear to have achieved a rare feat in Congress: bipartisan criticism of the Obama administration. Republicans and Democrats have also called for congressional investigations into both the IRS’ targeting of conservative groups as well as the Department of Justice’s subpoenas of phone records for reporters working in Washington.

Maine Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King have been vocal on the IRS scandal, which erupted late last week after officials acknowledged that some groups with the words “tea party” and “patriot” in their names had their applications for nonprofit status held up by the IRS.

Collins, a Republican, said earlier this week that “heads really should roll” at the tax agency and expressed skepticism that only “a couple of rogue IRS employees” were responsible.

She also sent a letter to Treasury Secretary Jack Lew this week demanding answers to a host of questions about who knew about the additional scrutiny on some groups, when they knew and how the review process played out. She also wrote that the incidents “appear to be part of a larger pattern of questionable activity by the administration that seems intended to hinder or chill the expression of views critical of the administration.”

“Irrespective of whether those singled out were liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat, the targeting of private citizens for exercising their First Amendment rights is unacceptable and cannot be tolerated,” Collins wrote. “It has been said that the power to tax is the power to destroy. The American people cannot and will not tolerate the abuse of that power to erode their most fundamental rights.”

King, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, said targeting certain groups was wrong, but he did not necessarily believe it was politically motivated. Instead, he said he believed the IRS chose a “very clumsy way of trying to take a shortcut” to try to figure out whether organizations were political organizations or tax-exempt “social-welfare” groups.

King said the situation underscores what he sees as a major flaw in the enforcement of campaign finance laws that allows clearly political groups to register as social-welfare organizations, which are not required to disclose their donors.

“The problem is this whole designation has been terribly abused over the past five or six years by both sides,” King said in an interview. “And it has become a gigantic loophole in the campaign finance system that has allowed a lot of anonymous money to be spent in campaigns because the IRS hasn’t been policing it sufficiently. What they did by identifying certain groups is wrong. But there are two scandals here.”

King said “it makes a mockery of the whole structure of campaign finance” when his campaign must identify anyone who contributes $50 or more, but someone can anonymously donate $10 million to politically involved organizations such as Karl Rove’s conservative Crossroads GPS, which spent more than $175 million during the 2012 elections.

Maine’s two House members — Democratic Reps. Mike Michaud and Chellie Pingree — were also critical of the IRS and the Justice Department’s decision to subpoena two months’ worth of phone records for Associated Press reporters over national security leaks.

House lawmakers grilled Attorney General Eric Holder on the subpoenas on Wednesday while the White House signaled that it would support a measure by a New York senator that would shield journalists and their employers from revealing the identity of confidential sources.

Michaud said he would support a congressional inquiry into both the IRS and the Justice Department’s subpoenas of journalists’ phone records.

“These actions deserve a critical review, and investigations by both law enforcement and Congress are clearly warranted,” Michaud said in a statement. “A federal agency targeting organizations based on ideology is outrageous and unacceptable. These investigations must proceed with two goals: figuring out exactly what happened and how we can prevent such incidents from happening again.”

Pingree, D-District 1, condemned the reported activities but did not say whether she would support congressional inquiries.

“A free press and free exercise of political speech are two of most basic values of this country and it’s outrageous if either the IRS or the Justice Department is doing anything to suppress those basic rights,” Pingree said in a statement.

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 317-6256 or at:
[email protected]

 

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