Darrell Issa and the presumption of guilt

     House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., walks to the dais on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, June 6, 2013, after greeting witnesses before the committee's hearing regarding IRS conference spending. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

    House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., walks to the dais on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, June 6, 2013, after greeting witnesses before the committee's hearing regarding IRS conference spending. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

    The presumption of innocence, a staple of western law, can be traced all the way back to ancient Rome. Translating from the sixth-century Latin: “Proof lies on him who asserts, not on him who denies.”

    But Darrell Issa, the Republican scandal-hunter who chairs the House oversight committee, believes in the presumption of guilt.

    He has already concluded — without a shred of evidence or testimony from IRS workers — that President Obama used the IRS to target his conservative political opponents. Wow. I would’ve thought that Issa would show more respect for the presumption of innocence given his own record of multiple arrests.

    Verdict rendered

    Back on May 14, before his committee had conducted any interviews with IRS employes, Issa surfaced on CBS to render his (somewhat incoherent) guilty verdict: “This was the targeting of the president’s political enemies effectively, and lies about it during the election year, so that it wasn’t discovered until afterwards.”

    He followed up nine days ago, with a verbal shell game on CNN: “The administration is still trying to say there’s a few rogue agents in Cincinnati when in fact the indication is they were directly being ordered from Washington … and we’re getting to proving it.”

    Issa isn’t “getting to proving” anything. Quite the contrary, in fact, because the guy who supervised the Cincinnati agents testified last Thursday that the Obama White House was not involved at all.

    Somehow, Issa has neglected to inform us about this testimony, which was conducted by members of his own committee staff. No problem. Democrats on the panel released the key statements on Sunday.

    What was said

    Early in the Q & A, the “screening group manager” was asked, “What’s your party affiliation?” He replied: “I am a conservative Republican.” Bear that in mind as we proceed.

    The screening group manager (who was not identified by name in the transcript, per request by the IRS) explained that, back in Feb. 2010, one of his agents was confronted with a tea-party group’s application for tax-exempt status. The worker was unsure how to proceed.

    A group can’t be awarded tax-exempt status if its primary activity is politics, but the IRS Cincinnati office didn’t know how to measure the level of activity. In the screening group manager’s words, “The agent appropriately identified the issue as not being fully developed.”

    The manager told his agents to look at similar groups that were seeking tax-exempt status, solely for comparison purposes: “We would need to know how frequently or — of the total activities, 100 percent of the activities, what portion of those total activities would you be dedicating to political activities. And in this particular case, it wasn’t addressed. … We were looking for consistency.”

    In other words, nuts-and-bolts bureaucratic work.

    Now comes the fun part

    Committee staffers asked him: “In your opinion, was the decision to screen and centralize the review of tea party cases (about) the targeting of the president’s political enemies?”

    The self-described conservative Republican replied: “I do not believe the targeting of these cases had anything to do other than consistency and identifying issues that needed to have further development.”

    Q: “Do you have any reason to believe that anyone in the White House was involved in the decision to screen tea party cases?”

    A: “I have no reason to believe that.”

    Q: Do you have any reason to believe that anyone in the White House was involved in the decision to centralize the review of tea party cases?”

    A: “I have no reason to believe that.”

    Q, moments later: “Are you aware of any political motivations behind the screening, centralizing and development of tea party cases?”

    A: “I’m not aware of that.”

    Thank you, conservative Republican.

    This is why the presumption of innocence is such a fundamental precept of western law; it’s embedded in our system to blunt the power of people like Issa. And it’s ironic indeed that Issa would abuse it, given his own past collisions with the law. Because when I referred earlier to “multiple arrests,” I was being literal.

    Back when Issa was indicted for stealing a car on one occasion, and arrested for stealing a car on a second occasion, I suspect that he would’ve been unhappy if the authorities had judged him guilty in advance of the evidence.

    When he was arrested for carrying a concealed weapon, I suspect that he wouldn’t have appreciated being found guilty before the case played out.

    And when he was accused by former work associates of burning down a factory, I assume that he treasured the presumption of innocence. (The car charges were eventually dismissed; on the gun charge, he pled guilty to a lesser offense of carrying an unregistered weapon; nobody was ever charged in connection with the factory fire, despite the insurance company’s suspicions.)

    So, with respect to the current IRS case, the least Issa can do is show some respect for western law, for the same fundamental protection that was afforded to him. But that won’t happen, of course.

    Issa said yesterday that the conservative Republican screening manager’s testimony “did not provide anything enlightening.”

    Or, as the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland declared: “No, no! Sentence first — verdict afterwards!”

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    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1

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