WASHINGTON – A former Department of Justice attorney is raising questions about the federal probe into the Internal Revenue Service’s alleged targeting of Tea Party organizations and other conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status.
Appearing Wednesday before the House Subcommittee on Economic Growth, Job Creation and Regulatory Affairs, Hans von Spakovsky said the Justice Department is unjustifiably keeping a lid on the ongoing investigation and criticized the selection of Barbara Bosserman, an attorney in the Civil Rights Division, to lead the inquiry.
Bosserman has donated a combined $6,750 to President Obama’s election campaigns and the Democratic National Committee since 2004. Von Spakovsky, a former Justice Department official who is now a senior legal fellow with the Heritage Foundation and a contributor for PJ Media, said this should raise a red flag with the public.
“The Justice Department’s pick of Barbara Bosserman to lead or be involved in making decisions about this investigation raises the appearance of a conflict of interest because of her extensive political donations to President Barack Obama, who recently said there was ‘not a smidgen of corruption’ in the IRS scandal – even though the investigation is supposedly not complete,” von Spakovsky said.
The Bosserman appointment, and her financial contributions, could affect the public’s perception of “her ability to make unbiased, objective decisions in an investigation that could prove very embarrassing to the president she supports – a president who has already signaled through his public statements what he thinks the outcome of the investigation should be.”
House Republicans have expressed concerns with the course of the IRS investigation and are setting the stage for condemnation should it result in what some fear will be a whitewash.
The lower chamber, in fact, voted 243-176 on Wednesday in favor of the Stop Targeting of Political Beliefs by the IRS Act of 2014, which prohibits the IRS from asking taxpayers questions regarding religious, political or social beliefs for one year. The measure was offered in response to the controversy.
“I was outraged to learn that the IRS was targeting applicants for tax-exempt status based on political leanings,” said Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.), who supported the bill, which now heads to the Senate. “The fact that the IRS would target groups based solely on their political persuasions is an abuse of government power that must be brought to an end. Agencies like the IRS should never be allowed to target groups based on their ideological beliefs or for exercising their First Amendment rights.”
At issue are claims that the IRS either slow-walked or denied applications from conservative groups. Last May, the inspector general for the Department of the Treasury released a report concluding that the IRS was using “inappropriate criteria” in reviewing tax-exempt status applications from conservative groups under Section 501(c)(4) of the Internal Revenue Service code. These improper reviews, the inspector general said, resulted in “substantial delays in processing” the applications. It also was determined the groups were subject to “unnecessary information requests.”
The next day, Attorney General Eric Holder pronounced the agency’s actions “outrageous and unacceptable” and opened an investigation to determine if any laws were broken.
Congressional Republicans have voiced dissatisfaction with the Justice Department’s handling of the issue – particularly the appointment of Bosserman. The probe has not produced any results and the department has refused to share any information with Congress. Lawyers representing targeted groups have informed the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that the organizations have not been contacted by investigators.
“I find that simply incredible – that nine months after the attorney general announced he was opening an investigation, neither the FBI nor the Justice Department has conducted basic interviews with the victims to gather information about their dealings with the IRS officials and employees who may have been involved in wrongdoing,” von Spakovsky said.
Eileen J. O’Connor, former head of the Justice Department’s tax division, told the subcommittee that the matter should have been handed over to the department’s criminal division instead of given to a civil rights division official.
“Some have criticized that selection as inappropriate because the attorney contributed to the president’s campaign and to other causes of his political party,” O’Connor said. “But when does support for the sitting president and his party make one an imprudent choice for an assignment? Not usually. But perhaps it does when the assignment is to investigate the administration’s alleged mistreatment of its political adversaries.”
O’Connor said “justice must not only be done, it must be seen to be done. When wrongdoing has come to light, the public deserves to know that those responsible have been identified and dealt with appropriately and that the law has been enforced impartially.”
“It is for this reason that judges recuse themselves from deciding cases,” she said. “Not because they would not be able to rule impartially, but because there might be a reason the public might think they are not impartial. It is essential to respect for our laws that even the appearance of partiality be avoided.”
These same considerations are applicable in the assignment of a case to a DOJ employee.
“While the Justice Department might not be permitted to take into account an employee’s political contributions, in this case, where the very allegations are of targeting people and organizations for political reasons, avoiding the appearance of partiality or of a conflict of interest might have been in the best interests of justice,” O’Connor said.
In a letter to Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), ranking member on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, IRS Commissioner John Koskinen said the agency has been forced to devote 225 employees and more than 97,000 hours responding to the 501(c)(4) investigation at a cost of $7,989,119.
The result, Cummings said, is no evidence of wrongdoing.
“After one of the most far-reaching investigations in recent history — spanning multiple House and Senate Committees that obtained hundreds of thousands of documents and interviewed dozens of officials — there is absolutely zero evidence of political motivation or White House involvement,” Cummings said. “Despite this fact, Republicans remain fixated on falsely accusing the White House of targeting its political enemies, wasting millions of dollars in an attempt to reignite their partisan inquiry before the November elections.”