We’ve had hints of this in recent days as snippets of interviews by congressional investigators with Cincinnati IRS workers leaked out. But media outlets who have now read the entire transcripts are reporting that the supervision from Washington over the targeting program in Cincinnati appears to have been far closer than previously thought, and the circle of those who knew of the program has expanded considerably.
Two Internal Revenue Service agents working in the agency’s Cincinnati office say higher-ups in Washington directed the targeting of conservative political groups when they applied for tax-exempt status, a contention that directly contradicts claims made by the agency since the scandal erupted last month.
The Cincinnati agents didn’t provide proof that senior IRS officials in Washington ordered the targeting. But one of the agents said her work processing the applications was closely supervised by a Washington lawyer in the IRS division that handles applications for tax-exempt status, according to a transcript of her interview with congressional investigators.
Her interview suggests a long trail of emails that could support her claim.
The revelation could prove to be significant if investigators are able to show that Washington officials were involved in singling out tea party and other conservative groups for extra scrutiny. IRS officials have said repeatedly that the targeting was initiated by front-line agents in the Cincinnati office and was stopped once senior officials in Washington found out.
The Associated Press viewed transcripts of interviews with two IRS agents working in the Cincinnati office.
Gary Muthert, an IRS agent there, said his local supervisor told him in March 2010 to check the applications for tax-exempt status to see how many were from groups with “tea party” in their names. The supervisor’s name was blacked out in the transcript.
“He told me that Washington, D.C., wanted some cases,” Muthert said of his supervisor.
Muthert said he came up with fewer than 10 applications. But after checking some of the group’s websites, he noticed similar groups with “patriots’ or “9-12 project” in their names, so he started looking for applications that mentioned those terms too.
Over a two-month period, Muthert said he found about 40 applications that mentioned tea party, patriots or 9-12 project — the latter being groups which aspire to reinstill a post-9/11 spirit of unity in the country.
“I used ‘patriots’ because some of the tea partiers wouldn’t, they would shorten their name to TP Patriots,” Muthert said. “I thought, OK, I will use ‘patriot.’”
Muthert said his supervisor told him that someone in Washington wanted to see seven of the applications, so Muthert prepared the files.
Whom did you send them to? An investigator asked.
“I don’t know,” Muthert answered.
Recall, this is 2010 — more than a year before Lois Lerner, head of the tax exempt unit, says she heard of the targeting program.
But another low level IRS agent may have tipped even more senior officials in Washington — inadvertently:
The transcripts show that in July 2010, Elizabeth Hofacre, an IRS official in Cincinnati who was coordinating “emerging issues” for the agency’s tax-exempt unit, was corresponding with Washington-based IRS tax attorney Carter Hull.
In April 2010 Hofacre had been put in charge of handling tax-exempt status applications from conservative groups by her Cincinnati supervisor.
She was asked to summarize her initial findings in a spreadsheet and notify a small group of colleagues, including some staff in the Washington tax-exempt unit. However, she sent her email to a larger number of people in Washington by accident.
“Everybody in DC got it by mistake,” Hofacre said in the transcripts. She later clarified that she did not mean all officials but those in the IRS Exempt Organizations Rulings and Agreements unit.
The Cincinnati office, where IRS reviews of applications for tax-exempt status were centralized, used a “be-on-the-lookout” (BOLO) list that included the words “Tea Party” and “Patriot” for flagging applications for extra review.
It will be impossible to prove that anyone who received the mistaken email actually read it. But whoever is on that list should be called to testify under oath.
Neither low level IRS employee has been able to shed any light on who ordered the program to begin, but I think investigators are getting closer to the truth. The IRS Washington attorney Carter Hull would seem to be emerging as a key witness. He is a link to both staffers and perhaps others in the Cincinnati office, and the IRS Washington office.
Instead of narrowing, the scandal is still expanding, and there’s no indication it will bottom out anytime soon.