President Donald Trump believes the Church of Scientology should have its tax exemption revoked, a longtime family aide and current top official at the Department of Housing and Urban Development told an actress and producer in May.
In an unsolicited Twitter message, Lynne Patton, who has worked for the Trump family since 2009, told actress Leah Remini of Trump’s position and said she would interface with the IRS directly to seek more information in an effort to initiate revocation. Remini sent HuffPost copies of Patton’s messages and has declined to comment further.
It’s not clear if Patton ever communicated with the IRS. But if Trump did express an opinion on the church and Patton did contact the IRS about it, as her message suggests, that would be a highly inappropriate level of interference with the IRS by the administration, one expert said.
“For the White House or any administration official to try and influence who the IRS targets, for whatever reason, is wrong and could result in a violation of the law,” said Larry Noble, the former general counsel of the Federal Election Commission who is now a senior director of ethics and general counsel at the Campaign Legal Center. “The IRS must make these decisions independently without any influence by the White House or administration officials.”
The White House and HUD did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
‘This Is Going To Get Done In The Next 4 Years’
Remini is a successful television actress who starred on the CBS hit sitcom “King of Queens” for nine years. She is also a former longtime member of the Church of Scientology. Since she left the church in 2013, she has dedicated most of her time to exposing abuses she and other members have faced. In 2016, A&E aired a docu-series about the church that Remini starred in and produced, called “Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath.” In it, Remini, along with a former top church official Mike Rinder, uses interviews and documentary evidence to try to document abuses perpetrated by church leadership. The first season of the docu-series won an Emmy Award, and the second season is currently airing.
In late May 2017, Patton tweeted at Remini and asked her to direct message her. Remini followed up on May 30 and said in a direct message, “Hi Lynne would love any help you can give.”
Patton responded on the same day and said:
“From The moment I saw your series I told President Trump & his family we needed to revoke their tax exempt status. They couldn’t agree more, but please don’t publicize that yet. I want to do more due diligence on what the IRS has attempted in the past (or maybe you can enlighten me), then I’ll identify who we need to connect with again.”
On the same day, Patton wrote Remini another message and said:
“This is going to get done in the next 4 years or I’ll die trying. Knock on wood!”
On May 31, Patton responded to an email Remini sent the day before thanking Patton for her offer of help. Patton said:
“I look forward to doing my part to help put an end to this ongoing nightmare and blatant misuse of our IRS rules & regulations. … I want to do more research on Scientology’s history with the IRS, to date, so that I can better understand what tactics have been applied and where we can pick up. Would you have any of this information handy? If not, I will obtain it from the agency directly, Kindly advise!”
If the White House or administration officials did contact the IRS about the church, IRS employees are required to document it and report it to the Office of the Inspector General. HuffPost sent an email to the office inquiring about any contacts Patton may have had with IRS officials, but has not received a response. The Church of Scientology did not respond to a request for comment.
A Loyal Family Aide
Patton heads up the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Region II, which includes New York and New Jersey. In that position, she oversees billions of federal housing dollars. Patton was appointed to that position in June. Prior to that, she had what some HUD officials saw as a failed stint as a senior adviser and director of public engagement for HUD Secretary Ben Carson.
Politico was the first to report that Patton butted heads with Carson’s staff. She organized a national tour for Carson as HUD secretary which failed to gain attention and abruptly ended after Carson got stuck in an elevator at a HUD housing project.
Patton has faced other controversies in the past few months. After she was promoted to head HUD’s Region II, several news reports questioned whether she was qualified for the role. In August of this year, The Washington Post obtained a copy of Patton’s resume. Among her job qualifications, she listed a primetime speech she made at the Republican National Convention in July 2016, her role as vice president of the Eric Trump foundation, and her work as chief of staff to members of the Trump family. Critics said the White House was favoring a longtime aide with little qualifications for the position.
Patton is beloved by the Trump family, according to multiple sources who spoke to HuffPost. The sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they aren’t authorized to speak to members of the press, said the Trumps have a deep appreciation for the loyalty and dedication Patton has shown to the family over the past eight years, especially during the 2016 presidential campaign.
‘The War Is Over’
The history of the Church of Scientology and its tax-exempt status is complicated and has long been under a cloud of controversy. The church first obtained its tax-exempt status in 1957, but the IRS revoked the status in 1967. At the time, the agency said the church’s activities were commercial in nature and to the benefit of its founder, L. Ron Hubbard, which would disqualify the church from exemption.
That decision launched a 26-year campaign directed by Hubbard to regain the church’s tax exemption, which he felt would lend legitimacy to the organization and allow it to amass the resources it needed to fight its enemies. After Hubbard’s death in 1986, the church’s new leader, David Miscavige, continued the efforts.
The church launched a sophisticated operation to infiltrate federal government agencies, the New York Times reported: Members filed scores of lawsuits against the IRS and individual IRS employees; private investigators probed IRS agents’ personal affairs; and two private investigators set up a phony news bureau and posed as reporters to try to gather information about Scientology critics within the IRS.
After 26 years, in a controversial decision, the IRS granted the church and over 150 entities associated with it tax-exempt status. Days after the decision, Miscavige, whom more than 100 members have accused of various abuses, stood on a stage at the Los Angeles Sports Arena in front of 10,000 Scientologists. At the end of a long speech, Miscavige shared the news of the IRS decision, and declared “the war is over” to loud cheers by attendees.
The decision did indeed provide the cloak of legitimacy that Hubbard had wished for. The significant contributions members must make to the church are now tax-exempt. (In order to move up in the spiritual ranks, members spend $500,000 or more.) The exemption has also given the church an effective attack line when dealing with critics. Responding to allegations of slave labor and church-ordered punishment, members and staff cite religious freedom as the reason those allegations should not be further explored. The church and its staff members will often call reporters and critics “bigots” when they question the church’s policies or actions.
Not Trump’s Decision
An IRS decision to revoke the church’s tax exemption would be an arduous one, and would involve scores of officials. It is not a choice the president can make, according to two former top IRS officials who spoke to HuffPost. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they represent clients who have matters before the IRS and don’t want to interfere in those matters by speaking publicly to a reporter.
According to an excerpt from the IRS website, “The IRS may begin a church tax inquiry only if an appropriate high-level Treasury official reasonably believes, on the basis of facts and circumstances recorded in writing, that an organization claiming to be a church or convention or association of churches may not qualify for exemption.”
After that inquiry is initiated, IRS agents would handle an investigation in the field. The decision on whether to revoke often rests with those agents and their supervisors, who report to the deputy commissioner of the IRS Tax Exempt and Government Entities Division.
Interest ― Then Silence
In her last email to Remini sent on June 8, Patton sent a link to a New York Post article about actor Tom Cruise and his position in the Church of Scientology. “By the way, when things calm down about Comey, etc, and I get more due diligence on the IRS, I’ll circle back,” she wrote.
It’s unclear exactly what Patton was referencing with respect to former FBI Director James Comey. But the day she sent that email to Remini, Comey had testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee sharing his account of the circumstances around his termination by Trump.
Remini never heard from Patton again. Months later, Patton would be photographed publicly with a Scientologist who has quickly risen up the ranks in Trump world.
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