WASHINGTON – House committees continued their probe this week into the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) targeting scandal in which conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status were subjected to extra scrutiny.
Cleta Mitchell, an attorney who represents the Texas-based group True the Vote, told a House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee Thursday that the IRS targeting is very “real” and “not pretend.”
“The IRS, at the direction of some political elites in Washington – not in Cincinnati, but Washington – took what had been for decades a process of reviewing applications for exempt status that for a 501(c)(4) organization could be expected to take three to four weeks,” Mitchell said. “And they converted that process into one that took three to four years and, in some cases, is still not over.”
True the Vote filed its application for tax-exempt status in 2010 and did not receive it until after the group sued the IRS.
Mitchell said the first time she became aware of the targeting was in October 2009 when she filed an application for another group, and did not hear from the IRS until June 2010. She said when the IRS got back to them it was not Cincinnati, but the Washington office.
“That group did one thing. It lobbied against Obamacare in the fall of 2009, in the spring of 2010, something that a 501(c)(4) organization is permitted to spend 100 percent of its program expenditures doing. We did not get the tax-exempt status for that organization until July of 2013,” Mitchell said.
In a Sunday interview with Fox News, President Obama said the IRS targeting controversy was a result of “bone-headed decisions” in the agency’s Cincinnati office and did not involve “a smidgen of corruption.”
Contrary to what Obama said, the scandal “is not just a boneheaded bunch of bureaucrats in some remote office,” Mitchell said.
She also said the IRS is still singling out such conservative organizations. Mitchell represents another tea party group, Tea Party Patriots, which applied in December 2010 and has yet to receive its tax-exempt status.
“The scandal is not over. It is continuing to this day, and the Department of Justice investigation is a sham. It is a non-existent investigation,” Mitchell said.
Catherine Engelbrecht, president of True the Vote and founder of King Street Patriots, complained that Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), ranking member of the committee, had sent letters to her organization “demanding materials, demanding information, demanding that [she] and representatives of True the Vote make themselves available in Washington.”
Cummings defended his actions by saying he was just conducting appropriate oversight of the organization, as the ranking member of the committee.
“I don’t want it put out there that I was trying to act on behalf of the committee or anything unusual. We were basically looking into voting situations and whether voters were in any way, in any way being impeded from voting,” Cummings said.
In 2012, the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights reported that True the Vote’s poll monitoring efforts in North Carolina focused on counties with high percentages of African Americans and other minorities.
Cummings cited the report as the basis for his scrutiny of the organization.
Engelbrecht said True the Vote only provides training and the organization had no poll watchers in any of these counties.
The focus of the hearing was on an Obama donor, Barbara Bosserman, a career Justice government employee, who is working on the FBI probe of the targeting scandal.
Bosserman was invited to the hearing, but the Justice Department declined to send the official, citing the ongoing investigation.
Instead, the panel heard testimony from representatives of Tea Party groups and their frustration with what they see as harassment by the U.S. government.
“Ms. Bosserman won’t come, the FBI won’t answer any questions, the president said it’s over, the Wall Street Journal reports that it’s over,” said Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), the subcommittee’s chairman.
On Wednesday, however, new IRS Commissioner John Koskinen told a House Ways and Means subcommittee that six of the formal investigations into the handling of tax-exempt groups are ongoing: two in the Senate, two in the House, and two others by the FBI and the inspector general.
At the Wednesday hearing, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) accused the IRS of secretly working on proposed regulations to clarify what the government considers political activity for 501(c)(4) groups.
The Michigan Republican pointed to a 2011 email from an official in the Treasury Department’s tax policy office to a group of IRS officials, including Lois Lerner, a former head of the division that reviewed applications for tax-exempt status. In the email, the Treasury official said regulations were on her “radar” and “we mentioned potentially addressing them (off-plan) in 2013.”
When asked if he knew the meaning of “off plan,” Koskinen said he did not know what it meant in 2012.
“I’m pretty sure that means hidden from the public,” Camp said.
Camp argued that the email indicates that the agency was aware early on that its practice of targeting conservative groups did not comply with existing regulations. He said these government agencies planned the new rules in 2011, while the targeting of conservative groups was in full swing, and not after the scandal broke in order to clarify regulations as the administration has suggested.
“The truth is that our investigation has revealed that the regulations weren’t drafted as a remedy to targeting. In fact, they were being worked on…during the time of the targeting as another line of attack against these groups,” Camp said.
Republicans say these new rules, proposed in late November, are intended to silence the speech of interest groups.
While the Obama administration has tried to blame the IRS targeting scandal on low-level workers who were confused about how to process their applications, it seems that they were working under orders from Washington, Camp said.
Camp pointed to another 2010 email from an IRS employee in the Cincinnati field office who flagged an application to his superiors, noting: “Recent media attention to this type of organization indicates to me that this is a high-profile case.”
From then on applications were routed through the offices of Lerner and IRS chief counsel William Wilkins.
Koskinen, who was appearing for the first since taking the helm at the IRS, said he is eager to move beyond the entire business and focus on taxpayer services.
“Nobody wants this investigation to be completed sooner than I do,” Koskinen said.
“I want everyone in the United States who’s a taxpayer to understand and be confident that when they deal with the IRS, we will deal with them in a straightforward way,” he added.