House Republicans deny asking Treasury IG to limit IRS audit

House Republicans on Wednesday pushed back on an inspector general’s suggestion that the GOP asked for a limited inquiry into the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of conservative groups, a statement Democrats have jumped on in recent days.

GOP lawmakers and staffers acknowledge that they reached out to Treasury’s inspector general for tax administration (TIGTA) after hearing that Tea Party organizations seeking tax-exempt status felt they were being mistreated by the tax agency.

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But Republicans also say that it made no sense for them to try to limit the inquiry to the Tea Party, because a broader inquiry would be needed to determine whether the IRS was treating conservative groups more harshly than other groups.

A spokesman for TIGTA J. Russell George said this week that the House Oversight Committee and Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) asked for a narrow inquiry just into Tea Party groups. Democrats allege this gave the public the false impression of a large IRS bias against conservatives.

“We had tons of reports, obviously, coming to us from conservative groups,” Rep. James Lankford (R-Okla.), a member of GOP leadership and the Oversight panel, told The Hill. “But I don’t have any sense that we were asking, exclude everyone else. Only look at this.”

Others on the GOP side said that what Issa and Oversight had requested was almost beside the point, with one aide saying that TIGTA “has the authority to look at whatever they wanted to, and would be expected to do so if there was wrongdoing.”

The response from Republicans comes as lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have sharpened their criticism of the Treasury inspector general, a George W. Bush nominee, and as the question of whom the IRS singled out and why has arguably only become more muddled.

“Obviously, it’s complicated as we try to weed through all this,” Rep. Charles Boustany Jr. (R-La.), the chairman of the House Ways and Means Oversight subcommittee, told reporters on Wednesday. “But we’re starting to get information.”

Republicans and Democrats in the House, for instance, still aren’t on the same page about whether the targeting of groups originated in Washington or in the Cincinnati office that deals with tax-exempt groups.

Congressional Democrats, buoyed by new information from the IRS this week that said liberal groups were also on agency watch lists, have said that George’s May audit on the agency’s targeting was flawed.

Both Reps. Sandy Levin (Mich.), the top Democrat at the House Ways and Means Committee, and Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) have called for George to return to Capitol Hill for more testimony, saying his audit allowed Republicans to misleadingly make the case that only groups on the right were targeted.

“It would’ve been good for him to look into the whole situation,” Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.), the top Democrat at House Oversight, said about the inspector general. “We’re talking about reform. We’re trying to figure out what’s wrong, and then make an appropriate reform. You cannot make that reform unless you have sufficient information — on both sides.”

Danny Werfel, the acting head of the IRS, is scheduled to make a Thursday appearance before House Ways and Means to discuss his top-to-bottom review of an agency that he says had serious managerial problems before he came aboard.

House Oversight is also scheduled to hold a Friday vote considering whether Lois Lerner, the IRS official who first disclosed and apologized for the targeting, waived her Fifth Amendment rights in an appearance last month.

Werfel, who also announced this week that the IRS was suspending the use of the so-called “be-on-the-lookout,” or BOLO, lists, briefed Republicans on the tax-writing Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday.

A Senate aide said investigators in that chamber were less concerned about the scope of the inspector general’s audit because they expect their inquiry to discover how much conservative and liberal groups were singled out.

But on the other side of the Capitol, Republicans insist that the evidence so far says that the IRS treated conservative groups more callously than liberal groups, even if both sides were flagged on the BOLO lists circulated this week.

House GOP aides also accuse Democrats of trying to use the new information about the BOLOs to intentionally confuse the issue.

Groups on the left have started coming forward to say that they also faced delays and long lists of questions as they sought tax-exempt status.

Democrats on Ways and Means have also said that liberal groups were among the 298 the inspector general examined for his audit.

But Boustany noted that Democrats declined to bring a witness to a Ways and Means hearing this month where a string of conservative groups outlined their treatment by the IRS.

The inspector general’s audit found that Tea Party groups at times faced years of delay as they sought tax-exempt status.

“We haven’t proved political motivation. But certainly there’s a lot of concern that certain groups were targeted relative to others,” Boustany said. “There are more unanswered questions than answers at this point in time.”

A TIGTA spokesman declined to comment on the GOP’s latest criticisms, but did say that they were reviewing other cases not included in the audit.

House Republicans also characterized the spokesman’s comments, saying that the GOP caused the IG report to be narrowly tailored as just the latest strike against the audit.

Boustany, for instance, said he expected more out of the report, considering that it was released more than a year after GOP lawmakers first flagged the problem. GOP lawmakers have also expressed concern that Holly Paz, a Washington official in the exempt organization division, was allowed to sit in on interviews with Cincinnati staffers.

“Were there problems with the way the inspector general did his audit? Well, of course.” Rep. Jim Jordan (Ohio), a senior Republican on the Oversight panel, told The Hill. “There are all kinds of problems with what he did.”

“We are going to continue to investigate,” Jordan added. “If Mr. Levin wants TIGTA to do something, our job is to continue to investigate.”