Former IRS chief receives congressional tongue-lashing

The former commissioner of the IRS took a tongue-lashing from lawmakers in both parties on Wednesday, even as he continued to defend his handling of the agency’s targeting of conservative groups.

Doug Shulman, the commissioner who left office last year, told the House Oversight Committee that the extra scrutiny the IRS gave to Tea Party groups seeking-tax exempt status was wrong, and the conduct “saddened” him.

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But Shulman also defended his more hands-off approach to dealing with tax-exempt applications, as Democrats upbraided him for not correcting the record on the IRS’s treatment of conservative groups.

Republicans on the panel also sharply criticized Shulman’s leadership at the agency, with leading conservatives openly questioning how the former commissioner’s superiors could not have been told about the situation.

The former IRS commissioner became the center of lawmakers’ attention after one of his former subordinates, Lois Lerner, who heads the division that oversees tax-exempt groups, invoked her rights against self-incrimination at the House Oversight hearing.

Neal Wolin, the deputy Treasury secretary, and Russell George, the inspector general whose report outlined the extra IRS attention, also testified, with George receiving his most strident criticism so far from lawmakers on his recent report.

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Shulman testified before the House Ways and Means Committee in March 2012 that there was “absolutely” no targeting of conservative groups and has since said that he found out about the extra scrutiny in May 2012.

But Shulman – along with other senior IRS officials – did not disclose the targeting to lawmakers, even after the agency received follow-up letters on the matter. The former IRS commissioner said that he wanted to let the inspector general’s audit run its course, and that — as one of only two political appointees at the IRS — he tried to keep political cases at arm’s length.

But top Democrats on the panel, including the ranking member, Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.), and Rep. Stephen Lynch (Mass.) said Shulman made the wrong choice.

“That’s simply not good enough,” said Cummings, who also noted that he thought there had been “gross incompetence and mismanagement” at the agency.

“We want to be able to trust the IRS,” Cummings added. “But for this moment, on this day, we need to be able to trust your word.”

On the other side of the aisle, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) noted that Shulman had visited the White House almost 120 times in 2010 and 2011 — and got the former IRS commissioner to acknowledge that many of those meetings involved how to implement the Democratic healthcare overhaul.

“118 visits — it didn’t come up in casual conversation after 132 members of Congress contacted you about it?” Jordan said, referring to the targeting. “You sure you didn’t bring it up with anyone in the White House?”

For his part, House Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) sharply criticized George for not informing lawmakers about the targeting, circulating email traffic that showed that the inspector general for tax administration’s office knew about the scrutiny by July 2012.

The California Republican also cited a letter he sent George in August, noting that the inspector general were required to tell lawmakers about “particularly flagrant problems” within a week.

The Oversight panel also released emails that showed the committee had been consistently checking in on the status of the report since September 2012 and interviewed an IRS staffer, Holly Paz, on the matter on Tuesday.

But George stood by his actions: “It would be impractical for us to give you partial information which may not be accurate,” he said. “It would be counterproductive.”

“I think it would behoove all of us to ensure that accurate information is given to Congress,” George added.