News reports from the time indicate the now-chief counsel of the IRS, William Wilkins, helped a church connected to President Barack Obama’s friend Rev. Jeremiah Wright get out of an IRS probe in 2008 while working as a private attorney.
“Lawyers from Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr have won the dismissal of an IRS case against United Church of Christ, Sen. Barack Obama’s denomination,” The American Lawyer‘s Zach Lowe wrote on May 22, 2008.
The IRS initiated an investigation early this year after a speech by Obama at a 50th anniversary celebration of the church last June. It was a reference by Obama to his presidential candidacy in a talk otherwise focused on faith that caught the agency’s attention. Tax laws prohibit non-profits–including churches–from engaging in political speech or promoting candidates. The IRS can withdraw an organization’s tax-free status if the organization is found to violate the rule.
Lowe noted that Obama had been a “member of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago–a UCC congregation–for more than 20 years. The church has been in the headlines for several months now as the congregation lead by the controversial Reverend Jeremiah Wright.”
William Wilkins, then a WilmerHale law firm partner, said, “We were so interested in the case we offered to do it pro bono.”
Lowe wrote that Wilkins and other firm lawyers worked with the church’s national counsel, Donald Clark, and proved they had invited Obama to the event before he announced his candidacy for president. “Evidence presented in a letter sent to the IRS in late March pointed to ground rules the organization had established for Obama’s visit; the church even cautioned churchgoers against engaging in any political activity,” Lowe wrote. “Had the IRS pursued the matter, it would have raised serious questions about the First Amendment’s application to church activities, Wilkins says.”
When President Obama nominated Wilkins to be the IRS’s chief counsel on April 17, 2009, his White House cited Wilkins’ experience as an attorney on issues relating to tax-exempt status organization. “He has a broad tax practice that includes counseling nonprofit organizations, business entities, and investment funds on tax compliance, business transactions, and government investigations,” according to the White House release announcing Wilkins’ nomination.
Prior to joining WilmerHale, Wilkins was Staff Director and Chief Counsel of the United States Senate Committee on Finance. Wilkins joined the Democratic staff of the Committee in 1981 and served as tax counsel before becoming Staff Director and Chief Counsel in 1987.
In the release, which included the announcement of a second Treasury Department nominee, President Obama himself said he was “confident in the abilities of these two fine public servants as we work to turn our economy around and give American families the relief they need during these difficult times. Under the leadership ofSecretary Geithner, they will work to serve the American people and bring their unique areas of expertise to the job as we work to put America on the path to prosperity.”
Upon the resignation of Steven Miller, several news outlets have pointed out that Wilkins will likely become a public target of congressional investigators digging into the scandal surrounding the IRS’s targeting of conservative and Tea Party organizations.
Reuters wrote that GOP lawmakers’ aides said their bosses will soon “focus” on Wilkins as they “seek to determine whether the White House acted improperly.”
“Wilkins’ office was made aware of the targeting of conservative groups as early as August 2011, according to the inspector general report,” Reuters wrote. “The report does not make clear whether Wilkins – who reports to the Treasury Department’s general counsel – himself knew of the targeting in 2011, or when he first learned of it.”
“Another question is whether Wilkins, whose office employs about 1,600 lawyers, might have taken the matter elsewhere within the Obama administration,” Reuters added. “The IRS issued a statement saying Wilkins did not participate in the August 2011 meeting, which the agency said involved ‘staff attorneys several layers below Wilkins.'”
As Town Hall magazine highlighted recently, White House spokesman Jay Carney has already been pressured by reporters on Wilkins’ role in this scandal.