The Treasury inspector general (IG) who outlined the IRS’s targeting of
conservative groups aggressively defended his office from Democratic
attacks on Thursday, saying he had never seen an independent auditor
treated that way. [WATCH VIDEO]
Democrats at a House Oversight hearing charged that Russell George, Treasury’s inspector general for tax administration, had examined the targeting too narrowly and missed the Internal Revenue Service’s treatment of liberal groups. George, Democrats contended, is also standing in the way of a requested document release.
George told lawmakers he was “disturbed” that his office was not, until recently, given documents that showed how liberal groups were scrutinized. But the former GOP staffer at the Oversight panel added at the end of a two-and-a-half hour appearance that he’d never seen lawmakers be so confrontational toward an inspector general.
“I have to admit, I’m a little concerned that this type of forum could have a chilling effect on the operations of inspectors general,” George said, adding that when he was at Oversight “we never treated an IG office like this.”
George also expressed concern that the lawmakers were questioning the integrity of members of his career staff who weren’t political appointees.
“If it were an allegation of personal wrongdoing on my behalf or on my organization’s behalf, that’s one thing,” George said. “But to just try to suggest that an audit could have been differently. This is unprecedented.”
George’s comments wrapped up the punchiest of his roughly half dozen appearances on Capitol Hill since his audit was released in mid-May, and came as the partisan divisions over the IRS investigation have hardened in recent days.
His comments also drew a swift rebuke from Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the ranking member at House Oversight and one of George’s critics at the hearing.
“I think you should be grateful that we asked you to come back to clarify, and you did it,” Cummings told George. “Nobody’s trying to attack you or anything else.”
George told lawmakers that he only received documents last week from July 2010 that showed that IRS staffers were supposed to send progressive groups to the same office that handled Tea Party applications for tax-exempt status. The minutes also say that: “’Progressive’ applications are not considered ‘Tea Parties.’”
If his office had gotten that information sooner, George said, it would have had a “direct bearing” on his audit. The inspector general also stressed that his office was only going on the information that the IRS gave them, and said that he did not believe a nonpartisan inspector general should judge the politics of groups that call themselves progressive.
But Democrats weren’t convinced, suggesting George could have done more to figure out how liberal groups were treated before releasing his Tea Party audit.
“You can’t possibly target everybody, or else you wouldn’t use the word target,” said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C). “If you are targeting, it means you’re picking them out from the universe of groups. Or else you were wrong to use the word target at all.”
Cummings also criticized George for standing in the way of documents that could show that liberal groups also faced the sort of delay as conservative ones, after the interim IRS leader, Danny Werfel, said Wednesday that the agency had concluded the documents were ready for release.
George said that his office was still working with the IRS on the document release, saying the agency had previously said it shouldn’t be released to protect taxpayer confidentiality.
During the hearing, Republicans leapt to George’s defense, with Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) saying that he believed the inspector general had faithfully called balls and strikes and gave George the chance to defend his “integrity.”
The inspector general responded that he had been a page at a Democratic convention and even a college Democrat before he “saw the light” and joined former Sen. Bob Dole’s (R-Kan.) staff. “I think anyone who has worked with me on either side of the political spectrum will agree that I call it as I see it," George said. "I never allow personal political views to affect decisions.”
Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) noted that George’s office had received information about the targeting of Tea Party groups by May 2012.
If the inspector general had been that interested in tipping the scale toward Republicans, he could have easily publicized that information during the heat of the presidential election, Issa and Jordan said.
“Releasing that just before the election would have been dynamite for the Republican side,” Issa said.
“Frankly, I would’ve loved to have had that information in May of 2012 that dozens and dozens and dozens of conservative groups were being targeted,” Jordan noted. “And you chose not to give it to the very committee who asked for the audit. And that’s fine. That’s your role. But this idea that you’re somehow favoring the Republicans — I just don’t get it.”
Jordan also asked George’s chief counsel, Michael McCarthy – a former Democratic staffer at Oversight – whether he’d seen any sign of political bias during his time in the inspector general’s office.
“I haven’t seen any political behavior,” McCarthy responded.