Dems: Inspect inspector general

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Congressional Democrats have revived their interest in Russell George, the Treasury inspector general who outlined the IRS’s targeting of Tea Party groups, with a pair of lawmakers filing a formal ethics complaint.

Democrats have said for months that George, Treasury’s inspector general for tax administration, crafted a flawed, misleading report that helped fan the flames of the IRS targeting controversy.

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Now Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.), the top Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) are sharply criticizing George for agreeing to brief GOP staff at a late January meeting on the Affordable Care Act without Democrats in attendance. 

Aides say they now know of multiple meetings between George and the staff of Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) from which Democrats were excluded.

Two Democratic members of that panel — Reps. Matt Cartwright (Pa.) and Connolly — lodged a complaint on Wednesday about George's original report on the IRS targeting last year, questioning his "independence, ethics, competence, and quality control” with an oversight board for inspectors general.

“If you want to connect the dots, a reasonable observer could be expected to conclude that he colluded with Issa’s staff to limit his report and the path of his investigation,” Connolly told The Hill concerning George.

“They have a tainted IG doing their bidding for them and making sure that the line of investigation is limited to what they want,” Connolly added.

A spokeswoman for George would only say that he is looking into Connolly and Cartwright’s 22-page complaint.

“Inspector General George received a copy of the letter sent to the Integrity committee and is in the process of reviewing its contents,” Karen Kraushaar said. 

The Democrats’ complaint comes as Republicans have also intensified their interest in the IRS controversy, which had receded from the headlines in recent months, during the current election year. 

Just this week, GOP leaders in both chambers urged new IRS Commissioner John Koskinen to withdraw new regulations governing the 501(c)(4) tax-exempt groups at the center of the controversy. The House Ways and Means Committee is also set to consider a measure next week from its chairman, Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.), that would delay those rules.

In their complaint, Connolly and Cartwright question the integrity of George’s inquiry into the IRS targeting from the start of his inquiry.

They say the inspector general, a former GOP staffer at House Oversight and a George W. Bush appointee, cut Democrats out of the conversation after Issa and Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) requested that the watchdog look into the treatment of Tea Party groups.

The Democrats added George might have valued getting his audit out quickly over getting his facts right, and the IG had appeared to maximize reports of the IRS’s shabby treatment of conservative groups — while downplaying similar treatment of liberal organizations. 

George's office, Connolly and Cartwright say, "produced a fundamentally flawed performance audit of the activities of the Internal Revenue Service's (IRS) Tax Exempt and Government Entities Division that harmed the public interest."

Democrats had started criticizing George’s work just weeks after his report outlining the targeting was released in May 2013. In his report, George said that groups that had “Tea Party” or “9/12” in their name received extra scrutiny.

Those Democrats criticized George for not disclosing that his office sifted through thousands of emails and found no hint of political motivation, and that liberal groups were singled out as well. 

Connolly and Cartwright reiterate those charges in their complaint, as well as noting that George’s office had limited their inquiry at Issa’s request. 

“How can anyone believe an IG, of all people, can present himself as objective or neutral when that’s his behavior, and his whole history is as a partisan?” Connolly told The Hill. “That’s forgivable if you act in a fair and neutral manner. He hasn’t.”

George has said his communications office misspoke about limiting the scope of his report and has defended his findings — and suggested Democrats’ questioning of his methods was “unprecedented.”

Republicans have insisted the IRS was far more likely to single out conservative groups than their liberal counterparts. In recent days, a Tea Party activist also said she would file an ethics complaint against Cummings, saying the Maryland Democrat had sought information similar to the IRS.

Connolly and Cummings have said the ranking Democrat was just doing his oversight duties. But Connolly also said the recent escalation in the IRS debate didn’t have anything to do with the decision to file the complaint against George, noting he had first drafted a complaint last year.

“I don’t know that there’s any particular magic to the timing,” he said.