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Duke Law Professor Helps Media Untangle IRS Scandal

Duke Law's Richard Schmalbeck is interviewed by Judy Woodruff on PBS NewsHour.
Duke Law's Richard Schmalbeck is interviewed by Judy Woodruff on PBS NewsHour.

When controversy erupted this week over IRS investigations of conservative groups, news reporters and producers quickly began calling Duke law professor and former tax attorney Richard Schmalbeck.

"I came to work Monday and my phone started ringing," said Schmalbeck, who believes the IRS bungled the situation but nonetheless has an obligation to determine whether nonprofit organizations are political or social welfare groups. "The first call was from The Wall Street Journal."

Calls from The New York Times, NPR, The New Republic, the Washington bureau of The Columbus Dispatch and others filled his day.  He spent 45 minutes providing background to an editorial writer for USA Today, and his comments to The Washington Post became the backbone of a story headlined, "How is the IRS supposed to vet 501(c)(4) groups, anyway?" Schmalbeck also contributed to a 10-minute segment on the PBS NewsHour.

One of the best experiences, he said, was talking with public radio's Diane Rehm via a Skype connection in the Duke studio, which gave him an opportunity to see the radio program in action.

Schmalbeck said it is valuable for professors to share their expertise. "We may have a bias, but we aren't speaking for anyone but ourselves," he said. "I think I added to the coverage in a positive way. There's probably less scandal than meets the eye."

One lesson from all the interviews is that his work with Duke students who are "intelligent and ask good questions" prepared him well for working with reporters.  "We practice every day [in class] what you need to do with journalists."