Cummings releases IRS interview transcripts

A senior House Democrat on Tuesday defied Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) by releasing a full transcript from the congressional investigation into the IRS’s targeting of conservative groups.

The more than 200 pages released brought few revelations, but represented an escalation in the increasingly bitter battle between Issa and Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the Oversight panel’s ranking member.

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Issa had warned Democrats that releasing a full transcript would be “reckless,” and said Democrats were trying to shut the door on the Internal Revenue Service investigation by providing a “roadmap” for other officials who might be interviewed.

“Americans who think Congress should investigate IRS misconduct should be outraged by Mr. Cummings’s efforts to obstruct needed oversight,” Issa said in a statement after the transcripts were released.

Cummings, in turn, accused Issa of selectively releasing partial transcripts to the media in an effort to damage the White House. Releasing the full transcript was justified because Republicans were holding back documents that made clear there was no high-ranking push to scrutinize Tea Party groups, he argued.

“I got sort of tired ... of parts of transcripts being leaked by our chairman,” Cummings said on MSNBC. “All I want to do is make sure the American people have the full story.”

The back-and-forth was just the latest sparring in what has become an increasingly strained relationship between the two men.

Issa and Cummings struck a bipartisan note when the new Congress convened in January. But as lawmakers have delved deeper into the IRS scandal, they have turned adversaries once more, and each is now regularly accusing the other of acting in bad faith.

The release of the transcript also took place the day before Tea Party groups were set to protest the IRS on Capitol Hill. Several high-ranking Republicans, including Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (Mich.), are scheduled to speak at the rally.

The transcript released Tuesday does not identify the IRS official who was interviewed, but he has been confirmed by outside sources to be John Shafer, a manager in the Cincinnati office at the center of the targeting scandal.

His account paints a fuller picture of how the IRS came to specifically focus on Tea Party groups. 

According to Shafer, an IRS screener beneath him identified a tax-exempt application from a Tea Party group and brought it to his attention.

Shafer said he then passed that application along to a higher-up in an IRS office in Washington, who agreed the case qualified as high profile and said similar cases should be identified to ensure consistent treatment — “normal business,” as he described it.

“There was a lot of concerns about making sure that any cases that had, you know, similar-type activities or items included, that they would be worked by the same agent and the same group,” Shafer told investigators from the House Oversight and Ways and Means committees.

“If we end up with four applications coming into the group that are pretty similar ... we won’t want four different determinations. It’s just not good business.”

Shafer was adamant that politics were never at play. He identified himself as a “conservative Republican” early in the interview, but said he never talked politics at work, and certainly not with the screener when discussing how to handle the Tea Party application.

“We never, never discussed any, any political ... aspirations,” he said.

He also said he had no reason, based on his personal knowledge, to believe the White House was involved in the decision to key in on Tea Party groups.

Shafer said he never told IRS officials to seek out tax-exempt applications that had “Tea Party” in their name, but rather wanted screeners under him to identify similar applications.

That claim does not mesh, however, with an interview that was conducted with IRS screener Gary Muthert. He told Congress that Shafer told him to use the phrase “Tea Party” in seeking out applications.

Cummings’s release of the transcripts, coming close to six weeks after the IRS first disclosed and apologized for the targeting of conservative groups, underscores that there are still several areas where the story remains cloudy, including how and why the targeting continued for so long.

“We still don’t know why everything happened and who is responsible,” Issa said in a statement released over the weekend.

Top Republicans like Camp and Issa have stressed that they don’t believe the targeting originated in the Ohio office, as originally claimed. What has been revealed thus far from the congressional investigations indicates several officials in Washington were aware of the targeting.

No evidence has emerged that shows high-ranking officials in the IRS, the Treasury Department or the White House were driving the practice.

Holly Paz, a D.C.-based official in the tax-exempt organization, said in her interview that she believed that Cincinnati staffers used “Tea Party” as a generic term for political activity, much the way someone would use “Coke” to describe a soda.

But Paz also told investigators that she knew about Tea Party cases as early as February 2010, a full three years before the targeting became known publicly.

Elizabeth Hofacre, a Cincinnati-based staffer also interviewed, has told investigators that she did not examine applications from liberal groups, and that D.C. officials took a close interest in her work on Tea Party applications.

House Republicans say the closed-door information-gathering portion of their inquiry will continue. The Justice Department and Treasury’s inspector general for tax administration, which outlined the targeting last month, are also conducting investigations.

— Published at 3 p.m. and last updated at 8:24 p.m.