WASHINGTON – The chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee said evidence obtained in the ongoing investigation of Internal Revenue Service practices shows the agency targeted conservative groups because of a political disagreement with a Supreme Court ruling holding that they don’t have to reveal the identity of their supporters.
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) said emails dispatched by Lois Lerner, the former director of the IRS Division of Exempt Organization, a central figure in the controversy, reveal animosity toward the court’s findings in the case popularly known as Citizens United and that she and others endeavored to undermine the decision.
Issa in particular cited a July 10, 2012, email where Lerner asserted “perhaps the FEC will save the day,” expressing hope that the Federal Election Commission might somehow work its way around Citizens United.
That email, and others, provide “fundamental evidence” that Citizens United seems to be the reason for action by the IRS.
“One of the things that we’re finding is they’ve got a real problem with 501(c)(4)s not disclosing their donors,” Issa said. “They don’t want them to do what they do.”
Lerner, who invoked her rights under the Fifth Amendment and refused to testify before the committee other than to assert she had done nothing wrong or illegal, knew that President Obama and officials within the Department of Treasury loathed Citizens United and therefore attempted to make the IRS “a wing of the FEC” even though she and others didn’t possess the legislative authority.
Issa’s comments came at the conclusion of a three-hour grilling directed at IRS Commissioner John Koskinen, who the chairman accused of being “more interested in managing the political fallout than cooperating with Congress, or at least this committee.”
Koskinen, who took office in December, long after the events took place, rejected Issa’s claims by insisting that the IRS “has been making and continues to make every effort to be as transparent as possible and cooperate with the six ongoing investigations” reviewing the issue — four investigations being conducted by Congress, one by the Justice Department and one by the Treasury Department’s inspector general.
“Over the last eight months the IRS has devoted significant resources to this committee’s investigation and requests for information, as well as those of other Congressional committees – transmitting documents and facilitating interviews in an effort to provide complete facts about the determinations process,” Koskinen said. “More than 250 IRS employees have spent nearly 100,000 hours working directly on complying with the investigations, at a cost of nearly $8 million.”
To date, Koskinen said, the IRS has produced more than 690,000 pages of unredacted documents to congressional tax-writing committees that have authority over the agency and more than 420,000 pages of redacted documents to the House Oversight & Government Reform Committee.
“In light of these document productions, I hope that the investigations can now be concluded in the very near future,” Koskinen said. “Once we have the resulting reports from these investigations, we can then take further corrective action where necessary.”
But committee Republicans indicated they are far from concluding the probe, noting that the IRS has failed to provide all of the material sought in a subpoena issued on Feb. 14. The panel is seeking all communications sent or received by Lerner and several other IRS officials from Jan. 1, 2009, to Aug. 2, 2013.
The chairman said the agency’s failure to cooperate is frustrating the committee’s investigation and raised the specter of holding the commissioner in contempt for non-compliance.
All of Lerner’s emails and documents during the designated four-year time period are necessary, Issa said, to fully determine the degree of her hostility toward the Citizens United ruling.
The committee subpoena, Issa noted, “asks for all the emails,” adding that they should be “responsive to who she is and why she did what she did.”
“Does a nonpartisan or nonpolitical agency withhold documents requested during a congressional investigation?” Issa asked. “The IRS does and did.”
Koskinen said the document request under the subpoena is “more broad and sweeping” than the agency has thus far been dealing with. It could involve “millions of documents and will take months if not years” to collate since it seeks every document of 800 people over a four-year period.
Providing the committee with potentially millions of raw emails, Koskinen said, could indicate “you may want this investigation to go on forever.”
“I never said we would not provide those,” Koskinen said. “We’re trying to do it in an orderly way.”
The agency, he said, has been sifting through communiques using various search terms relevant to the investigation and handing those deemed relevant over to the committee.
Issa and other committee Republicans rejected the notion that turning over Lerner’s email compilation would take more than a few hours.
“What part of ‘all’ don’t you understand?” asked Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio). “We don’t care what you think is relevant. We want every single email in the time period of the subpoena that was sent to you.”
At issue are claims that the IRS either slow-walked or denied requests from Tea Party groups and various other conservative organizations seeking designations under Section 501(c)(4) of the Internal Revenue Service Code that permits them to engage in some political activity and protect the identity of donors.
On May 10, 2013, Lerner, while participating in a public forum, revealed that the agency was targeting conservative groups, slow-walking or denying their applications. Three days later 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.
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. But congressional Republicans have voiced dissatisfaction with the Justice Department’s handling of the issue and spearheaded committee probes into the agency’s functions.
Under the Citizens United ruling, the Supreme Court held that the First Amendment prohibits the government from restricting political independent expenditures by corporations, associations and labor unions. Those entities are then free to make contributions to 501(c)(4)s who engage in some political activity and their involvement would not be revealed.