Chairman Issa: Release of full IRS transcripts would be ‘reckless’

House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) on Tuesday said it would be “reckless” to release full transcripts of interviews with IRS staffers, after the panel’s top Democrat threatened to do so this week.

Issa, in a letter to Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), defended his decision to only released limited portions of testimony, saying that it could help lure other potential witnesses and protect those who have come forward to talk about the agency’s targeting of conservative groups.

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The chairman accused Cummings of trying to undermine the committee's investigation by calling for a full transcript release while a bipartisan probe was ongoing. Cummings has said he'll release the full transcripts by the end of the week if Issa refuses to do so.

“In fact, raising public awareness by releasing limited portions of transcripts decreases the likelihood that retaliations will occur — when agency management know the press and Congress are watching, witnesses tend to be less likely to be demoted or fired,” Issa said.

The California Republican also said he feared a full account would tip off involved parties to investigators’ moves.

“The transcript could be used by future witnesses and their attorneys to prepare answers to likely questions, and to devise testimony consistent with the narrative that previous witnesses presented to Committee investigators,” the Oversight chairman said.

A committee aide said that an upcoming round of interviews would be with IRS staffers in Washington, and the panel’s release said Cummings is seeking to give those officials “a ‘roadmap’ to avoid accountability.” Issa has suggested that Washington officials ordered the singling out of conservative groups, and transcripts reviewed by The Hill show that D.C. staffers did take an interest in tax-exempt applications from Tea Party groups. 

House investigators also plan to hold further interviews with IRS staffers in the Cincinnati office that deals with tax-exempt applications.

Issa’s comments are just the latest salvo in his back-and-forth with Cummings, who released his own part of the transcript on Sunday and said that it’s time for Congress to “move on.”

Those comments came as Washington's attention shifted to the disclosure of classified National Security Agency surveillance programs, and as the Senate took up its broad overhaul of U.S. immigration laws.

Cummings has criticized Issa’s release of hand-picked parts of the interview transcripts, saying they didn’t give the full picture of what investigators have found out, and pointed out on Tuesday that the Oversight chairman had previously said the “whole transcript will be put out.”

The Maryland Democrat has stressed that the inquiry into the IRS’s singling out of conservative groups has not shown any involvement from the Treasury Department or the White House, and has accused Oversight Republicans of only trying to prove accusations after they’ve lobbed them.

“Chairman Issa changes his mind so fast that even when I agree him, we’re not on the same page,” Cummings said. “I fully support responsible oversight, but cherry picking transcript excerpts to fuel partisan and unsubstantiated claims is not a credible or effective way to investigate.”

Issa on Tuesday charged that it was Cummings who was playing politics, accusing him of trying to shield President Obama and his administration from the investigation.

“Any time the committee endeavors to engage in such an effort, your participation is generally limited to obstructing or criticizing the process, if you decide to participate at all,” Issa said. “I urge you to adopt a more responsible approach.”

The Oversight chairman also said that, while he wanted to release the full set of transcripts, he would do so only “based on the progress of the investigation and not on any arbitrary timeline.”

Cummings later told reporters that he was still committed to releasing the full transcripts, but was still determining how to roll them out. 

The only reason, the Maryland Democrat added, that he unveiled a partial transcript was to combat the inaccurate picture being painted by Issa. In that transcript, an IRS staffer in Cincinnati who described himself as a conservative Republican said he knew of no evidence that the targeting was politically motivated.

“I trust the public. I trust that people can read and see exactly what happened,” Cummings said. “We are supposed to be about transparency. And to me, no matter what the transcript says, there’s nothing to hide.”

— This story was last updated at 7:43 p.m.