House Democrats: No political motivation in IRS scrutiny of conservatives

House Democrats insist in a new report that the IRS’s improper scrutiny of conservative groups wasn’t politically motivated.

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Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.), the top Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, says that interviews with more than three dozen witnesses also found no evidence of White House involvement, despite early Republican claims to the contrary. 

As the IRS targeting controversy nears its first anniversary, Cummings instead argues that IRS employees charged with overseeing tax-exempt groups had insufficient guidance and management to deal with applications from Tea Party groups and other organizations.

Cummings put together the report after House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) declined his request to release the transcripts of 39 witnesses, which include self-described Democrats, Republicans and independents.

Democrats have long chalked up the IRS’s improper scrutiny up to bureaucratic foul-ups and not political motivation. But Cummings’s 68-page report, which relies on some already released transcripts, amounts to perhaps the most comprehensive argument Democrats have made so far for that case.

“It is clear that there was no White House involvement or political motivation in the screening of tax exempt applicants, contrary to the accusations made by Chairman Issa before we began this investigation,” Cummings said in a statement.  

“I continue to believe that the full transcripts should be made publicly available so the American people can read all the facts for themselves."

Democrats are working hard to counter GOP efforts to keep the IRS controversy center stage.

The report comes just days before House Republicans are expected to vote to hold Lois Lerner, the former IRS official at the center of the controversy, in contempt of Congress, and to urge Attorney General Eric Holder to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the IRS. Lerner was the first IRS official to acknowledge and apologize for the targeting in May 2013.

Republicans, in recent months, have intensified their efforts on areas like the IRS and Benghazi, popular topics among their base in this election year.

According to Cummings’s report, one IRS tax specialist and self-described Republican said it was “laughable” that anyone thought the IRS was targeting President Obama’s political enemies. Another agency staffer, also a Republican, said she wasn’t “aware of any political bias by Ms. Lerner against Tea Party groups.”

Several agency staffers also said they struggled with what they called the complex law governing the tax-exempt 501(c)(4) groups at the center of the controversy.

"That (c)(4) area is a very, very difficult area, and there’s not much guidance. And so the lingering length of time, unfortunately, was just trying to apply the law to the specific facts of each case," said one staffer, who also described themself as a Republican.

Issa's office quickly moved to rebut the report from Cummings, releasing a partial transcript of their own, where an attorney for IRS employees suggests that Democratic investigators were trying to put words into the staffers' mouths. The attorney, Robert Weinberg, also said Democrats had misrepresented an IRS employee's statements to make its case that the White House wasn't involved.

GOP lawmakers have also made clear that they don’t buy the Democrats’ argument that there was no political motivation. Republicans on the House Ways and Means Committee voted last month to encourage the Justice Department to consider prosecuting Lerner for, among other things, targeting Crossroads GPS, a group co-founded by Karl Rove.

Issa and other Republicans have also pointed to newly released emails that show Lerner and a Justice Department official talked about potentially prosecuting tax-exempt groups that misled the government about their political activities.

But Republicans have also shifted their argument in recent months, becoming less likely to accuse President Obama of trying to intimidate or silence conservative critics. Instead, the GOP argues that Obama’s criticism of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United case, echoed by other top Democrats, influenced the actions of IRS employees like Lerner.

— This post was updated at 11:14 a.m.