GOP lawmakers told the IRS commissioner on Thursday to just admit that the tax agency targeted Tea Party groups.
John Koskinen’s response: Not my call to make.
But the IRS chief also said that congressional committees will have to make the final call on what drove that scrutiny – which the agency, through then-official Lois Lerner, admitted and apologized for more than two years ago.
“The motivation behind it, and the issues behind it, are what the investigations are investigating,” Koskinen told reporters after appearing before the subcommittee.
The IRS chief added that it was “not appropriate for us to try to get in front of those investigations.” The Senate Finance Committee’s inquiry into the IRS, a bipartisan report more than two years in the making, is expected in the next couple weeks.
“They’re the ones that will be making judgments,” Koskinen said, adding that he’d be “happy to accept their findings” and wants to read the Finance panel’s recommendations.
But Republicans on the Ways and Means oversight subcommittee weren’t buying that rationale. Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.), the panel’s chairman, suggested that the IRS would have more credibility from lawmakers if the agency more openly said that bias played a role in the treatment of Tea Party groups.
Roskam, pointing to emails that Lerner sent about auditing Crossroads GPS, the pro-GOP group started by Karl Rove, said there was a "common sense reading of these things and the sequence of them says there was an agenda here, and the agenda was to target people based on a particular philosophy.”
“You can be the one that says, 'Hey, it's all over. We acknowledge that there was targeting that took place' – which is a huge, a huge acknowledgement,” Roskam added. “Which the IRS has never done.”
The back-and-forth came at a hearing about the IRS’s audit procedures, which a new federal report said were lacking to the point that organizations could be chosen for examinations for biased reasons.
Republicans have sought to make the report, from the Government Accountability Office, a new front in their Tea Party investigation.
But Koskinen stressed at Thursday’s hearing that there’s no proof that any group has been chosen for an audit because of their political or religious beliefs.
“There was no evidence of bias in the selection process,” Koskinen said about the GAO report.
Koskinen also told lawmakers that the IRS’s chief risk officer, brought in from outside the agency, examined the agency’s audit process in 2013.
“He spent several months looking at the criteria used by more than 350 IRS compliance programs, and found no evidence of bias in any of them,” Koskinen said.
Jay McTigue of the GAO said that the watchdog wasn’t really concentrating on finding examples of bias in the audit process, even as he acknowledged that Koskinen’s statements were true.
“We did not observe any instances of unfair selection,” McTigue said, before adding: “Our study was looking at broader controls.”
Roskam and the panel’s other Republicans made it clear that they disagreed with Koskinen’s assessment, pointing frequently to Lerner’s comments about Crossroads. Rep. Kristi Noem (R-S.D.) said that the commissioner’s stance that the report only found a “hypothetical” chance of group’s being audited for biased reasons suggested the IRS didn’t take the findings seriously.
But Koskinen inisted that Lerner, the former head of the IRS division overseeing tax-exempt groups, didn’t have the power to green light an audit on her own.
“I think it’s a misrepresentation to say we’re not taking the report seriously,” Koskinen told Noem.