Issa takes deeper look at Justice on IRS

House Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) is pressing to interview a senior Justice Department official as part of his investigation into the IRS’s improper scrutiny of Tea Party groups.

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The Oversight panel started taking a deeper look at Justice recently, after e-mails revealed that a department lawyer and former IRS official Lois Lerner discussed whether tax-exempt groups that lied about their political activity could face criminal charges.

Those emails pointed to a May 2013 discussion, just days before Lerner sparked the IRS controversy by apologizing for the agency’s singling out of conservative groups seeking tax-exempt 501(c)(4) status.

But Issa and Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) now say that an interview this month with Richard Pilger, the Justice official who spoke with Lerner, revealed that the department and Lerner spoke about the issue in 2010.

Jack Smith, the head of the Justice Department’s public integrity section, asked for that meeting, the GOP lawmakers say. Issa and Jordan now say they want to speak with him as well.

Issa and Jordan cast the 2010 meeting as a sign that the Justice Department had joined Democrats in urging the IRS to crack down on tax-exempt groups playing a role in the political process following that year’s Citizens United decision.

Republicans have been making that case for weeks, in the process somewhat backing off the assertion that President Obama and his administration played a role in the IRS scrutiny.

“We now know from Mr. Pilger that the Justice Department contributed to this pressure,” Issa and Jordan wrote to Attorney General Eric Holder.  

“By encouraging the IRS to be vigilant in possible campaign-finance crimes by 501(c)(4) groups, the department was certainly among the entities ‘screaming’ at the IRS to do something in the wake of Citizens United before the 2010 election.”

The letter to Holder comes just two days after the Oversight panel issued a subpoena to the Justice Department for related documents, and complained that the department had limited the committee’s interview with Pilger. 

Republicans have also urged the Justice Department to take another look at prosecuting Lerner, the official at the center of the controversy, while also sharply criticizing what they see as a lackluster investigation.

Justice officials have said that their investigation into the IRS is open and ongoing.

Democrats have accused Republicans of overreaching in the investigation, and one top lawmaker said Thursday’s letter was just more of the same.

“Based on the witnesses and documents before the committee, the Department of Justice’s request to the IRS was about how to prosecute groups that engaged in criminal activity – not based on their political beliefs,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.), the top Democrat on the Oversight panel.