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May 30, 2013 11:42 AM The Tea Party Immunity Gambit

By Ed Kilgore

It’s easy to think of this sort of story (courtesy of TPM’s Eric Lach) as a sideshow to the IRS “scandal:”

Meet Selim “Sam” Zherka. New York City strip club proprietor. Westchester county newspaper owner. And the self-described “loudest voice” for the Tea Party in New York state.
In the weeks since the revelation that the Internal Revenue Service inappropriately screened applications for non-profit status from conservative and Tea Party groups, numerous individuals have come forward to claim that they, too, were unfairly treated by the IRS for political reasons. Zherka is one of them.
Last week, Zherka filed a lawsuit in federal court in Manhattan against the IRS, the FBI, and three individuals (Tony Nikac, Pasquale Scarpa, and Genaro Morales) for “gross derogation of [Zherka’s] fully protectable rights under the First, Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.”
At a press conference in New York City on Wednesday, Zherka, who owns the VIP Club and Cheetah’s Gentleman Club in Manhattan, and a free weekly newspaper called The Westchester Guardian, said the government has been carrying on a “witch hunt” against him for years.
“They’re investigating every dealing I’ve done, since the beginning of time,” Zherka said.

But it’s not a sideshow: it’s at the very heart of the effort to turn the highly technical issue of 501(c)(4) certification into a scandal.

You will note that Zherka’s lawsuit doesn’t even mention the delays he experienced in securing tax-exempt status for a political group, New Yorkers For Good Government, he formed in the midst of the alleged “witch hunt,” which provides the only real nexus to the IRS “scandal.” For one thing, the group did get certified as a 501(c)(4). But more importantly, that little fact shows that Tea Party activists, with Republican congressional investigators and conservative gabbers egging them on, are trying to make poorly documented claims that IRS “targeting” extended beyond foot-dragging on 501(c)(4)s into more understandable, and broadly feared, types of tax enforcement activities.

Now to be clear, if the IRS did indeed unleash all its hounds on any category of Americans because of their political activities, that would be alarming and outrageous. But you have to figure there are genuine tax cheats in the tea party ranks, and it’s entirely natural that they would try to cloak their tax-cheating activities by alleging political targeting, if only to get the IRS off their backs. I’d say it would be pretty outrageous if the GOP’s own hounds helped them to do so, essentially supporting immunity from tax enforcement laws and regulations for Tea Folk (and perhaps also for the Christian Right organizations who are trying to horn in on the victimhood claims).

The broader issue is that the public doesn’t understand, and cannot be expected to understand, the byzantine world of tax-exempt “social welfare organizations.” If they did, they probably wouldn’t be terribly alarmed at IRS “targeting” of this or that kind of group if the consequences only involved delays in the official certification of tax-exempt status (which does not mean the groups had to pay taxes or disclose donors: if they are operating within the boundaries of the law and regulations, they can self-designate as tax-exempt and then defend themselves if their tax returns are challenged by the IRS—and if that’s been happening on a large scale, no one has demonstrated it so far). So it’s very important to scandal-mongerers to change the subject constantly from the specific IRS misconduct we know about to vague and general allegations of “targeting.” For that reason, we’ll soon be treated to a lot more stories like Zherka’s, some perhaps involving more sympathetic characters than a strip-club operator.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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