GOP brings focus back to IRS controversy

The IRS’s treatment of Tea Party groups burst back into view Wednesday, as top Republicans accused the agency of using audits to disproportionately scrutinize conservative outfits.

Republicans on the House Ways and Means Committee stressed that new information showed that the IRS flagged mostly conservative groups for extra surveillance, even after those groups received their tax-exempt status.

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Rep. Charles Boustany (R-La.) and other GOP lawmakers also repeatedly cited the role of Lois Lerner – the IRS official at the heart of the controversy – in singling out Tea Party groups.

Boustany charged that only conservative groups were audited after receiving the extra scrutiny that followed tax-exempt approval. He added that 90 percent of the groups that received extra surveillance falling short of an audit were conservative.

“Four months after Lois Lerner’s apology for the targeting, there are many questions outstanding,” Boustany said at a hearing of the panel’s oversight subcommittee. “And frankly, there are not nearly enough answers.”

The hearing breathed new energy into a controversy that has been overshadowed for weeks by issues ranging from Syria to the current fiscal fights.

Still, the GOP charges also show that the congressional investigation into the IRS is only growing in scope, even after some two dozen interviews with agency staffers and the vetting of roughly 300,000 documents.

Separately on Wednesday, House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) released a memo suggesting that the IRS fell prey to President Obama’s concerns about the Citizens United case, feeding the agency’s harsher treatment of Tea Party groups.

To Democrats, the new charges from Republicans amounted to merely a new spin on the same story. They charged the GOP with conducting a fishing expedition.

“Unfortunately, my friends on the other side of the aisle continue to frame this issue as a partisan one,” said Rep. John Lewis (Ga.), the top Democrat on the Ways and Means oversight subcommittee. He stressed that there has been no evidence of political motivation or that anyone outside the IRS played a role in the targeting.

The sole witness at the hearing, interim IRS chief Danny Werfel, deflected pointed questions from GOP lawmakers over why Lerner, who was placed on administrative leave, was still on the agency payroll.

Werfel, who took the reins at the agency in May, stressed that the agency was working hard to clean up both its backlog of applications for 501(c)(4) status, and its criteria for choosing groups for audit.

“The whole process is on hold,” Werfel said.

But the acting IRS chief also said that he had questions about Lerner’s role in the audit process after reading a batch of her emails.

Just before Werfel’s testimony, the IRS and top lawmakers in both parties called on a Treasury inspector general to look into leaked documents used in a USA Today report. The documents included confidential taxpayer information about scores of groups seeking tax-exempt status.

On Wednesday, the newspaper said that internal IRS documents from 2011 showed that agency lawyers questioned the advocacy actions of scores of organizations – most of them conservative.

In a statement, the IRS said it was “troubled” by the apparent disclosure of personal information that is, by law, barred from being disclosed publicly.

“We have referred the matter to the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, which is our standard practice for potential disclosure violations,” the statement said. “We understand TIGTA is reviewing the matter.”

GOP aides on both the Senate Finance Committee and at House Ways and Means – panels that both have access to the confidential information – said Wednesday that they were not behind the leak. Democrats at Ways and Means have access to private taxpayer data for the current investigation as well.

“The document was absolutely not released from Ways and Means Committee Republicans. The release of personal taxpayer information is a clear violation,” Sarah Swinehart, a Ways and Means spokeswoman, said in a statement.

A spokeswoman for Russell George, the inspector general, said they were reviewing the matter, and observers on Capitol Hill said TIGTA had opened an investigation.

Rep. Sandy Levin (Mich.), the top Democrat at Ways and Means, stressed that the IRS used the list of 162 groups – maintained by a registered Republican – to better gauge whether organizations were eligible for tax-exempt status.

A spokesman for the Michigan Democrat added that he could only assume the leak came from Republicans, saying the selective nature of the leak fit the GOP’s normal pattern in the current investigation.

“Republicans continue to try to spin a story that is simply not supported by the facts,” Levin said in a statement.

Wednesday’s hearing also proved that Republicans still believe that the IRS’s action – and, more specifically, Lerner’s leadership of the exempt organizations division – can be a political winner that helps fire up the party base.

Boustany noted that, in 2010, Lerner had said that the IRS couldn’t do anything “right now” about tax-exempt groups playing politics – a statement he suggested raised questions about her role even after groups got tax-exempt status.

And both Reps. Mike Kelly (R-Pa.) and Tom Reed (R-N.Y.) grilled Werfel over why he couldn’t offer more information about Lerner’s status. Werfel had said that privacy laws limited what he can say.

“I will hold you accountable,” Reed insisted in a testy exchange with the IRS chief. “You have an obligation to answer.”