House continues debate over IRS scandal

Thursday , March 06, 2014 - 12:40 PM

Josh Hicks

WASHINGTON — The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee’s top lawmakers on Wednesday continued their war over the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of conservative groups seeking tax exempt status.

On the eve of another hearing on the matter, Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., released a transcript in which an IRS employee says the agency’s chief counsel’s office, headed by a President Barack Obama political appointee, helped develop its problematic guidelines for reviewing “tea party” cases.

GOP officials said the transcript adds weight to their assertion that IRS officials in Washington, not frontline employees in Cincinnati, were responsible for the IRS conduct.

The IRS reiterated Wednesday that chief counsel William Wilkins was never involved in that process, as it stated early in the scandal. The Treasury Department inspector general noted in his initial May report that the office of the chief counsel discussed in August 2011 how to handle the first applications that agents in Cincinnati flagged for additional scrutiny.

“Wilkins did not learn about specific groups being singled out by name until earlier this year,” the agency said in Wednesday’s statement.

There has been no direct link to the White House in the controversy.

Also Wednesday, Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the panel’s ranking Democrat, continued his aggressive efforts to counter the narrative that the IRS treated conservative groups differently from others. In recent days, Cummings has released a flurry of materials, including training documents and transcripts of IRS employee interviews, showing liberal groups were also scrutinized.

Cummings and other Democrats have questioned the credibility of the May audit by J. Russell George, inspector general for tax administration at the Treasury Department. Cummings requested George appear before the panel for more questioning Thursday. IRS employees are also set to attend.

On Wednesday, Cummings said George intervened last week to stop the public release of new information about the agency’s search criteria.

Acting IRS Commissioner Daniel Werfel said at a hearing Wednesday that George made the request but that career IRS attorneys determined there was no danger in releasing the information. The hearing was on the IRS’ role in the new health-care law, but Werfel addressed the issue regarding George in response to questioning from Cummings.

The inspector general’s office on Wednesday defended George’s actions to prevent the release of new search-criteria information because it could violate taxpayer privacy protections. The office said career IRS lawyers had independently arrived at the same conclusion but then reversed their decision. Ultimately, the information was not released.

George’s report in May said the IRS had inappropriately targeted groups based on ideology rather than looking for politically neutral signs of campaign activity. He also found that the IRS went too far in its questioning of applicants, asking them for everything from resumes to names of donors, which experts say the IRS cannot legally do.

Cummings has released IRS training materials that he said showed the agency had targeted both progressive and conservative groups for additional scrutiny. Other transcripts from congressional interviews of IRS employees include a Cincinnati agent, who described himself as a conservative Republican, saying he sent the first tea party case to Washington for guidance. On Tuesday, another Cummings-released transcript quotes Cincinnati IRS employees who said they knew of no political motivation or White House involvement.

Issa and other Republicans have said the materials do not disprove that conservative groups were subjected to harsher scrutiny.

He and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., countered Cummings on Wednesday with their transcript about the chief counsel’s office.

Issa and Camp also sent a letter to Werfel on Tuesday requesting all documents and communications — including those to the White House — relating to the IRS controversy. The two asked for the information by July 29.

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