By Bernie Becker - 07/17/14 12:15 PM EDT
A top Justice Department official on Thursday brushed aside GOP requests for a special prosecutor to investigate the IRS’s treatment of Tea Party groups, saying the evidence didn’t warrant such a appointment.
“It is very, very rare to use a special prosecutor,” Deputy Attorney General James Cole told a House Oversight subcommittee, adding that he and Attorney General Eric Holder determined the IRS case "didn’t meet any sort of standard to warrant a special prosecutor."
Cole tried to assure Republicans at a House hearing that his department was taking seriously a criminal investigation that a host of GOP lawmakers have accused of being shoddy.
Cole’s testimony gave little comfort to Republicans, who have intensified their investigation into the IRS ever since the agency acknowledged that some of Lerner’s emails over a two-year span had gone missing.
Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and other Republicans on the Oversight Committee particularly questioned why the Justice Department only found out about Lerner's emails after it broke in the press in June.
John Koskinen, the IRS commissioner, has said that he was told emails were missing in April, leading Republicans to openly wonder about how intensely the department was investigating the agency
Lerner, the central figure in the investigation, acknowledged in May 2013 that the agency improperly scrutinized Tea Party groups seeking tax-exempt status. The IRS says it can’t reproduce all of her emails from 2009 to 2011 because of a hard drive crash
Cole said during his opening statement, first released Wednesday, that the department was investigating those missing emails. He added during the hearing that the investigation would cover why the IRS didn’t inform the department about the missing emails.
Still, Cole stressed that the department was getting documents from a variety of sources, meaning there was no “gaping holes” in its collection of Lerner emails and no indication that any were missing before the IRS told lawmakers last month.
GOP lawmakers also pointed out that President Obama had said during a February television interview that there wasn’t “a smidgen of corruption” involved in the case. Cole stressed during his testimony that discussing an open investigation could influence other witnesses.
“That was a tremendous disservice to be done to people who dedicate their lives to law enforcement,” Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) said. “And to do it for a cheap political score during the Super Bowl?”
Republicans have laid out a variety of reasons they believe a special prosecutor is needed for the IRS, pointing out that one of the key Justice Department attorneys in the case has given thousands of dollars to Obama and other Democratic causes.
Federal justice officials have also made no public moves on a criminal referral against Lerner from the House Ways and Means Committee, or the House’s move to hold Lerner in contempt of Congress.
Democrats on the committee have sprung to the department’s defense, saying that Republicans' accusations about the IRS investigation are baseless.
Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.), the top Democrat on the Oversight panel, insisted during Thursday's hearing that the GOP was “using any excuse to manipulate the facts until they no longer have any resemblance to the truth."
Cole, meanwhile, said he understood why lawmakers would be frustrated that he couldn’t offer any more information but promised they would be fully briefed once the investigation ended.
“The Justice Department doesn’t talk about the investigation,” Cole said after being pressed about Obama’s comments. “Lots of people have talked about this investigation on both sides of this.”
Still, the hearing got testy at times — perhaps not surprising, given the House GOP’s toxic relationship with Holder.
“Your boss, the attorney general, is a bad witness,” Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) told Cole at one point. “Please don’t be a bad witness.”