Issa questions role of Holder's DOJ in targeting of Tea Party groups

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House Republicans on Thursday broadened their investigation into the IRS’s improper targeting of conservative groups, questioning whether the Justice Department might have played a role.

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Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and 16 other GOP lawmakers said that the Justice Department had shown interest in prosecuting tax-exempt groups that were dishonest about their political activity, in what they called just the latest sign that Democrats pressured administration officials into unfairly scrutinizing Tea Party groups.

The Republicans said they want Justice to explain their role in the examination of tax-exempt groups, and have requested to interview Richard Pilger, a Justice Department official, about an e-mail conversation he had with former IRS official Lois Lerner about potential prosecutions. 

That conversation, prompted by a suggestion from Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), happened just two days before Lerner acknowledged and apologized for the IRS’s scrutiny of Tea Party groups at a Washington conference. 

Issa and the other Republicans, citing newly released e-mails, want to know whether more senior officials at the Justice Department wanted Pilger to discuss the matter with Lerner. Pilger told Lerner on May 8, 2013, that “I have been asked to run something by you.” 

Plus, Republicans say that the department was showing an interest in prosecuting tax-exempt groups for what was legal activity.

"The department's use of alleged false statement on the tax-exempt application is an unfortunate instance of prosecutorial 'gotcha,' targeting these victims for supposed 'lies' about activities that they are legally allowed to do," Issa and other Republicans on the Oversight Committee wrote to Attorney General Eric Holder. 

Lerner, summarizing her conversation with Pilger, said in an email last May said that Justice wanted to discuss whether there could be a case against groups that lied on their tax-exempt applications by "saying they weren't planning on doing political activity, and then turning around and making large visible political expenditures."

The conservative group Judicial Watch first released that email and other documents about the conversation between Pilger and Lerner last week. 

Whitehouse said in a Huffington Post op-ed last week that the IRS’s scrutiny of conservative groups was wrong. But he added that there was a second agency scandal – “allowing big shadowy forces to meddle in elections anonymously through front groups that file false IRS statements.” 

The letter is just the latest signal that House Republicans are revving up their inquiry into the IRS, a popular target among their conservative base.

Republicans have recently alleged that supposedly apolitical officials at the IRS and elsewhere in the government took their cues from top Democrats. 

The 17 House Republicans added Thursday that the new emails between Justice and the IRS demonstrated coordination among administration officials to target conservative nonprofits, and chided Holder for what they saw as misguided priorities.

“With your constant reminders about the Department's limited criminal justice resources, we would have hoped that the Department would better focus its prosecutorial resources,” they wrote.

The GOP have found no proof that the White House played a role in the IRS treatment of Tea Party groups, as several in the party originally suggested.

Issa and the Oversight panel voted this month to hold Lerner, who formerly led an IRS division overseeing tax-exempt groups, in contempt. 

The House Ways and Means Committee, headed by Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.), said around the same time that Lerner targeted Crossroads GPS, the prominent GOP group.

Camp and the committee Republicans asked Holder and the Justice Department to take another look at whether Lerner should be prosecuted. 

Congressional Democrats, meanwhile, have said that Republicans are playing politics, and that there’s no sign of political motivation behind the IRS’s actions.

The Justice Department didn’t respond to a request for comment on the new GOP letter, but has previously said that its open investigation into the IRS remains a priority. 

Holder has a famously toxic relationship with Issa and House Republicans, engaging in several tense exchanges with GOP lawmakers at congressional hearings. The House also voted to hold Holder in contempt in 2012. 

On Thursday, the 17 House Republicans asked Holder give them by May 5 all the documents relating to the tax-exempt organizations or applications since January 2009 and all communications between Lois Lerner and DOJ employees since January 2009.