The latest cause celebre for the far right and libertarians is that of Catherine Engelbrecht, president of True the Vote and founder of King Street Patriots, who has accused the Obama administration of siccing on her the Internal Revenue Service, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
On Feb. 6, Engelbrecht told the House Committee on Oversight & Government Reform that she was one of countless thousands of Americans who "are being targeted by an administration willing to take any action necessary to silence opposition."
She told the committee that prior to 2009, she had never been politically active, but after volunteering to work at the Texas polls "saw fundamental procedural problems that I felt could not go unaddressed." In response to her concerns, she founded True the Vote, whose mission is "to ensure that every American voter has an opportunity to participate in elections that are free and fair."
Since then, she has been subjected to more than 15 instances of audit or inquiry by federal agencies. The FBI Houston Division, in response to a request by CBS News, stated "Pursuant to FBI policy, it would not be appropriate to comment on the nature of routine contacts made in the course of FBI business." ATFE representatives told CBS their inspections were also routine and had nothing to do with the IRS matter. The IRS has also declined to comment on the matter.
"This government attacked me because of my political beliefs," Engelbrecht said. And she is not the only one, maintained Engelbrecht. "I have heard, over and over, that people are afraid to tell their stories because of what has or might happen to them and their families at the hands of our own government."
Following its investigation, OSHA issued nine citations to Engelbrecht Manufacturing. The company was initially fined $25,000, but Engelbrecht negotiated the fine down to $14,910. Engelbrecht Manufacturing had not been inspected in its previous 18 years.
A safety professional, concerned over the allegations, looked into the OSHA visit. He concluded nothing was out of the ordinary.
"Based upon injury statistics in this industry, this region of OSHA and the Houston Area Office had been going to companies in this industry in an attempt to reduce injuries and yes, to get this industry sector's attention. The violations were typical OSHA violations that inspectors are trained to look for ..."
Mark Robison, writing for the Reno Gazette Journal's Fact Checker, noted that it might be reasonable to suspect Engelbrecht was a target of government retaliation for starting a tax-exempt group with the opposite political leaning as the White House, which was then hit with scrutiny by four federal agencies. But, he added, would it also be reasonable to expect that someone might get extra scrutiny if a participant in a group's events was the subject of a domestic terrorism investigation, if their business was in an industry that was part of a targeted safety inspection effort, and if their group was involved in political activity that violated legal tax requirements?
"Yes. In this light, rather than retaliation, it seems instead to be a perfect storm."
Lost amidst all this sturm und drang is the very serious allegations against True the Vote that it is not protecting the right to vote, but instead is just another tool in the right wing's arsenal for suppressing the vote of minorities and others who might lean Democrat. The Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights in 2012 reported that True the Vote's poll monitoring efforts in North Carolina were tailored to African-American and minority communities that traditionally vote Democrat.
"Groups like True the Vote are backed by Republicans, and most Democrats call the efforts an attempt to restrict voting of minorities by challenging voter registration, curbing early voting and requiring multiple forms of identification," noted Rachel Bade, writing for Politico,
In 2010, True the Vote posted a video on its website about voter fraud, in which only people of color were featured. "White people are shown talking patriotically about the need for a million vigilantes to suppress illegal votes," noted Glenn Smith for the Rag Blog. "True the Vote's video is well produced. Participants speak in calm and knowing tones, disguising the racist agenda behind their project."
Smith noted that campaigns to suppress voting follow a familiar pattern.
"Raise suspicions of widespread voter fraud. Accuse 'others' of stealing elections from us (read: white people). Threaten would-be voters with criminal charges. Limit polling locations in poor and minority precincts. Distribute spurious 'felon lists' that disenfranchise legal voters who happen to share a name with a felon. Staff phone banks that make election calls to minority and poor voters giving incorrect polling locations and dates. Dress up vigilantes in cop clothes to intimidate would-be voters."
So while Engelbrecht's allegations deserve further investigation, so do the activities of organizations such as True the Vote. Perhaps it's time for the appointment of a special or independent counsel, charged with ferreting out whether government agencies have been used as Engelbrecht alleges. By the same token, perhaps we need a special investigator to look into organizations that claim to be for "social welfare" but in fact are politically motivated or were established with less-than-honorable reasons.
Unfortunately, since the expiration of the independent counsel provisions in 1999 that gave Congress the power to appoint a special investigator, the only person who can do so is the U.S. Attorney General. As history has shown us, administration officials aren't always so willing to investigate alleged malfeasance conducted under their watch. We're not so confident Attorney General Eric Holder will do so in this case, either. We also need to be cognizant of our recent history with special investigators -- Kenneth Starr spent more than $70 million investigating Pres. Bill Clinton, adultery, perjury, Whitewater and travelgate. The American public was, on the whole, outraged by the cost and discomfited by Starr's tactics.However, the FBI is still investigating whether the IRS targeted conservative groups that were filing for non-profit status. Even though the FBI has indicated there will be no charges filed at this point because the investigation didn't uncover the type of political bias or "enemy hunting" that would constitute a criminal violation, we are looking forward to reading the official report. We hope ombudsmen for the ATFE, OSHA and the FBI will also look into Engelbrecht's allegations to determine if there was malfeasance or collusion on the part of any of their agents. If, as Engelbrecht contends, there are thousands of other Americans in a similar predicament, it shouldn't be all that hard to get a few more of them on the record.
We suspect, when all is said and done, Engelbrecht and the Tea Party will not be satisfied with the results of any investigation, especially considering that they seem to have all the answers already. However, we at the Reformer would like to see the curtain drawn back on organizations such as True the Vote, which purport to be protecting the integrity of the vote, but in fact are nothing more than one more ruse in the insidious effort to send the country back to the 1950s, when white privilege was at its apex.