By Bernie Becker - 07/18/13 12:13 AM EDT
House Republicans charged Wednesday that the Internal Revenue Service’s chief counsel’s office and an agency official at the center of the targeting controversy helped delay applications for tax-exempt status from Tea Party groups.
In a letter, four leading GOP lawmakers said that the office of the IRS’s top lawyer took unique interest in Tea Party cases, reviewing applications even after a veteran specialist said there was enough information to make a decision.
Lois Lerner, the IRS official who first apologized for the targeting of Tea Party groups, made the request to send tax-exemption applications to the chief counsel’s office, according to an agency official.
With its newest release, the GOP is looking to raise fresh questions about the IRS’s treatment of conservative groups after Democrats stressed that the current congressional inquiry hasn’t found any evidence of political motivation.
The IRS chief counsel is — along with the commissioner — one of only two presidential appointees at the agency, a point that was prominently raised by Republicans in Wednesday’s letter.
The partial transcripts offer new insight into Lerner’s role in the handling of tax-exempt applications, after she was placed on administrative leave, replaced as director of the IRS exempt organization division and invoked her Fifth Amendment rights before Congress.
In the letter, Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.), Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), Rep. Charles Boustany Jr. (R-La.) and Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) press Danny Werfel, the interim IRS chief, to speed up delivery of already requested documents on the chief counsel’s conversations with Treasury’s general counsel and the White House.
“As a part of this ongoing investigation, the committees have learned that the IRS chief counsel’s office in Washington, D.C. has been closely involved in some of the applications,” the four Republicans wrote to Werfel.
“Its involvement and demands for information about political activity during the 2010 election cycle appears to have caused systematic delays in the processing of Tea Party applications.”
The GOP lawmakers now are also asking for documents by July 29 on any communications between the IRS, the Treasury Department and the White House on the 2010 election and the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.
The IRS said in May, just days after the controversy broke, that its chief counsel, William Wilkins, didn’t learn about the targeting until this year. It also noted that the chief counsel’s office has some 1,600 attorneys.
Wilkins, the IRS said, had no role in overseeing applications for tax-exempt 501(c)(4) status, and the agency uses the term chief counsel to refer to any of the lawyers in the office.
With the House inquiry growing increasingly bitter and partisan, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) accused Issa and the other Republicans on Wednesday of creating “a skewed account based on partial, incomplete and cherry-picked information while disregarding key evidence that contradicts your political narrative.”
Cummings said this week that Republicans were wrongly accusing the White House of being involved, and Democrats have also been raising new questions about the inspector general, J. Russell George, who detailed the targeting of Tea Party groups in a May audit.
On Wednesday, Cummings and Rep. Sandy Levin (D-Mich.), the top Democrat at House Ways and Means, slammed George for intervening to stop the IRS from releasing documents that would have shown that liberal groups also faced significant delays on their applications.
Werfel told the House Oversight panel on Wednesday that George had disagreed with internal experts at the agency about whether documents the IRS was going to release fully protected taxpayer confidentiality.
“It is imperative that the Inspector General operate in a non-partisan manner and be completely forthcoming with the Congress and the American people,” Levin said in a statement.
The nine-page letter from the GOP lawmakers on the role Lerner and the chief counsel’s office played included partial transcripts of interviews with Hull and two of his superiors.
Michael Seto, the head of Hull’s unit, told investigators that Lerner told him that the Tea Party cases needed to undergo a “multi-tier review” that involved both her staff and the chief counsel’s office.
Hull, meanwhile, said that after
Lerner’s office and the chief counsel got involved, he was asked months later for updated information on the Tea Party cases.
Ronald Shoemaker, Hull’s boss, told investigators that the chief counsel’s office was seeking information on what sort of political activities the applicants were involved in during the 2010 campaign — far from an unreasonable request, in his view. Groups applying for 501(c)(4) status, for instance, can’t have politics as their primary purpose.
But Shoemaker also said that, as far as he knew, some of those cases were still pending some three years later. “That’s a very long time period,” he said.
The GOP letter says that the “lengthy and unusual review” in Washington “created a bottleneck” in the Cincinnati office that deals with tax-exempt applications, with Ohio-based staffers waiting for guidance from D.C.
The memo that Cummings released Tuesday asserted that lack of direction from Washington, and not politics, caused the delay of tax-exempt applications.
Congressional investigators have requested a slew of documents from the IRS, in addition to sitting down with agency employees. GOP lawmakers have complained that, while the IRS is complying with their document request, the agency has been slow to deliver.
— Updated at 8:13 p.m.