GOP wants more info on IRS 'special project team'

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Two senior GOP lawmakers are demanding more answers from the IRS about a "special project team" devoted to responding to information requests about Lois Lerner.

House Oversight Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) and Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) said they wanted to know how and why the separate response team got set up, and more specifics about its duties.

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The two Republicans also asked why the IRS commissioner and chief counsel — the agency's two political positions — were responsible for responding to requests about Lerner, the central figure in the IRS's Tea Party controversy.

The special project team, Chaffetz and Jordan said, "could explain the interminable delays related to the IRS’s responses to the Lerner requests."  

"In fact, the Committee has been waiting to receive all of Ms. Lerner’s emails for more than two years," they wrote to IRS Commissioner John Koskinen on Friday.

Mary Howard, the IRS official in charge of freedom of information requests, discussed the "special project team" at an Oversight hearing this week on the government's response to those requests.

Howard's comments sparked the ire of Republicans, who were already unhappy that they were forced to subpoena her to testify. They also come more than two years after Lerner first kicked off the IRS controversy by apologizing for the agency's treatment of conservative groups, something for which the IRS has been on its heels ever since.

But IRS officials said Friday the team Howard referred to is hardly new, and that Koskinen and other agency officials have been talking about the group for months. 

The team, the officials said, is the roughly 250 staffers who have been combing through documents dealing with the IRS's improper scrutiny of Tea Party organization to comply with the roughly half-dozen congressional investigations. 

That group is also responsible for responding to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. The IRS says the team has helped send hundreds of thousands of documents up to Capitol Hill, all the while protecting taxpayer information when needed.

"I think it got a little garbled in the delivery," an IRS official said Friday about Howard's testimony about the team.

Still, Howard's testimony gave more ammunition to Republicans who have long been skeptical of the IRS and the Obama administration's honesty about the agency's treatment of conservative groups.

Chaffetz and Jordan also questioned Howard's statement that the IRS has no interactions with the White House when dealing with FOIA requests. 

"This statement is contrary to the administration’s stated policy and the practice of the four other agencies represented on the panel alongside Ms. Howard, as confirmed by their FOIA Officers," Jordan and Chaffetz said Friday.

That came on top of their concerns that Koskinen and the IRS chief counsel, William Wilkins, were "primarily responsible" for Lerner requests — and perhaps coordinating with the White House.

IRS officials have often said that administrations from both parties have made it clear that they take a hands-off approach to the agency's operations. 

And onFriday, agency staffers said Howard was referring to the chief counsel's office — which has hundreds of lawyers — and not Wilkins himself when discussing the response to FOIA requests on Lerner.