GOP grills IRS chief on impeachment

GOP grills IRS chief on impeachment
© Greg Nash

Conservatives on the House Judiciary Committee clamored Wednesday for the impeachment of IRS Commissioner John Koskinen as the panel’s chairman zeroed in on the agency’s preservation of email records.

Rep. Bob GoodlatteRobert (Bob) William GoodlattePoll: Plurality of voters want special counsels for both campaigns Gun reformers search for the next bump stock AT&T wants to probe Trump's role in Time Warner merger: report MORE (R-Va.), the chairman of the panel, offered few clues about whether he might throw his support behind the impeachment effort. 

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But conservatives showed no signs of backing down, even as Koskinen aggressively defended his record.

GOP leaders and Koskinen would both like to avoid his impeachment; the hearing was intended to put a lid on pressure from conservative lawmakers who had been calling for a floor vote this month.

Yet it is not clear that vote will be avoided.

Freedom Caucus member Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.), who lost his primary and will be out of office early next year, has threatened to force a vote before the House adjourns for the election.

He told reporters Tuesday he would make a final decision after the hearing.

Impeachment proponents say that Koskinen failed to comply with a subpoena for communications to and from former IRS official Lois Lerner, since backup tapes containing Lerner’s emails were erased. They also allege that Koskinen made false and misleading statements to Congress about the tapes and emails.

Koskinen said that he testified based on his knowledge at the time and asked the IRS to comply fully with Congress. However, he acknowledged on Wednesday that some information was not preserved and that some of his testimony later turned out to be inaccurate.

“I regret both of those failings,” he said. “I can also tell you that, with the benefit of hindsight, even closer communication with Congress would have been advisable.”

Goodlatte focused his questions on the IRS’s handling of Lerner’s emails. He asked Koskinen about the steps he took to preserve emails after the agency received a subpoena.

Koskinen said he met with senior executives and was told that an appropriate document retention order had previously been issued. His counsel sent a follow-up memo to information-technology employees to remind them to preserve the emails.

Later in the hearing, Goodlatte asked Koskinen if he could provide to the Judiciary Committee as well as to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee written communications that he and any other IRS employees made to preserve records subject to subpoenas. Koskinen said he would do that.

Koskinen said that the erasure of the backup tapes has been determined to be an accident caused by two IRS employees working the midnight shift at a facility in Martinsburg, W.Va.

But Republicans were unswayed by Koskinen’s defense.

“You issue 66,000 summons and subpoenas each year,” said Oversight Chairman Jason ChaffetzJason ChaffetzDem demands documents from TSA after scathing security report Chaffetz replacement sworn in as House member Democrats expand House map after election victories MORE (R-Utah), who introduced a resolution to impeach Koskinen last year. “You know how to dish it out, but you can’t take it. And so we issue a subpoena, we expect you to comply with it.”

“And when you destroy documents that are under subpoena, somebody’s got to be held accountable for that. And that starts with you,” Chaffetz said. “You provided false testimony to this committee, you’ve provided false testimony to the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and you should be held accountable for that.”

House Freedom Caucus Chairman Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) said that impeaching Koskinen is “the least we can do.” He also said that the IRS is still targeting conservative groups for extra scrutiny, citing a court opinion from August.

Koskinen said that the agency is not still targeting conservative groups and that a few groups have not had their applications for tax-exempt status completed because they are involved in litigation.

Rep. Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho) said that Koskinen’s “overall record is one of gross incompetence and extreme negligence.” He said that lawmakers shouldn’t have had to file impeachment resolutions or hold hearings because Koskinen should have resigned.

Koskinen said he hasn’t resigned because he doesn’t “think anything has been done that would merit that” and because “it will simply create a terrible precedent trying to recruit people from the private sector” to government leadership positions.

Koskinen’s term ends in November 2017, after President Obama leaves office. He said that he would step aside if a next president asked him to do so.

Democrats at the hearing came to Koskinen’s defense but also used the event to call attention to Republican presidential nominee Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpO’Malley tells Dems not to fear Trump Right way and wrong way Five things to know about the elephant trophies controversy MORE’s tax returns.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) declared the hearing “an obvious sham” before making reference to Trump spending $12,000 of his charitable foundation’s money to buy a football helmet signed by Tim Tebow, among other expenses.

After Goodlatte objected to the question, saying it was outside the scope of the hearing, Nadler asked Koskinen for an opinion on whether the IRS should bring a case on the matter. If it did not, Nadler asked if he thought it would be an “impeachable” offense for the commissioner.

Koskinen said IRS commissioners don’t personally make such decisions but that there is a detailed process to examine such cases.

The hearing came about after Goodlatte and Jordan reached a deal to postpone an expected vote last week on an impeachment resolution. However, any member can force a vote by filing a “privileged resolution,” something Huelskamp has threatened to do.

Rep. John FlemingJohn FlemingCoast Guard suspends search for missing Ohio plane Freedom Caucus member to bring up bill on impeaching IRS chief GOP seeks to make it 52 MORE (R-La.), who tried to force a floor vote last week, said Tuesday that Huelskamp has the right to act on his own and call up a privileged resolution but that the Freedom Caucus tries to build consensus. The caucus wanted regular order and doesn’t want to undermine the process, he said.

If Koskinen is honest and candid, “likely we won’t approach this until after the elections, until the lame-duck,” Fleming said.

Jesse Byrnes contributed.