Leaders of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee continued their battle over the release of transcripts of interviews with officials from the Internal Revenue Service’s Exempt Organizations division amid claims of what the transcripts indicate about White House involvement in the targeting of Tea Party and other conservative groups.
Committee chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., and the ranking Democrat on the committee, Elijah Cummings, D-Md., have been battling over excerpts of the transcripts in recent weeks after the committee conducted hearings into a report that the IRS screened for applications for tax-exempt status from conservative political groups with “Tea Party” or “patriot” in their names (see Lawmakers Trade Jabs over IRS Accusations). Cummings had pushed Issa to release the entire interview transcript, arguing that it showed there was no White House involvement or political motivation in giving the applications from conservative groups extra scrutiny. After Issa declined to release the full transcripts, citing concerns that it might impede the investigation, Cummings nevertheless released the full transcript Tuesday of one of the interviews with an IRS Screening Group Manager in Cincinnati, John Shaefer, who provided a detailed account of how Tea Party groups applying for tax-exempt status were first identified by the IRS. The manager, a self-identified “conservative Republican” and 21-year veteran of the IRS, denied that he or anyone on his team was directed by the White House to take these actions or that they were politically motivated, Cummings pointed out.
In a letter to Issa on Tuesday, Cummings wrote, “This interview transcript provides a detailed first-hand account of how these practices first originated, and it debunks conspiracy theories about how the IRS first started reviewing these cases. Answering questions from committee staff for more than five hours, this official—who identified himself as a “conservative Republican”—denied that he or anyone on his team was directed by the White House to take these actions or that they were politically motivated. Instead, the Screening Group Manager explained that the very first case at issue in this investigation was initially flagged by one of his own screeners in February 2010.
"He told us he agreed that this case should be elevated to IRS employees in Washington because it was a “high profile” application in which the organization indicated that it would be engaging in political activity," Cummings continued. "He explained that he initiated the first effort to gather similar cases in order to ensure their consistent treatment, and that he took this action on his own, without any direction from his superiors, and without any political motivation. He also confirmed that one of his screeners developed terms subsequently identified by the Inspector General as ‘inappropriate,’ such as ‘Patriot’ and ‘9/12 project,’ but that he did not become aware that his screener was using these terms until more than a year later.”
Issa criticized Cummings for posting the full investigative interview of Shafer on the Internet in the middle of his committee’s ongoing investigation into the facts and origins of IRS efforts to target Tea Party groups.
“I am deeply disappointed that Ranking Member Cummings has decided to broadly disseminate and post online a 205-page transcript that will serve as a roadmap for IRS officials to navigate investigative interviews with Congress,” Issa said in a statement. “After unsuccessfully trying to convince the American people that IRS officials in Washington did not play a role in inappropriate scrutiny of Tea Party groups and declaring on national television that the case of IRS targeting was ‘solved’ and Congress should ‘move on,’ this looks like flailing. Americans who think Congress should investigate IRS misconduct should be outraged by Mr. Cummings’ efforts to obstruct needed oversight. In the course of this fact based inquiry, Ranking Member Cummings has wrongly argued that questions about IRS conduct are somehow not legitimate. His own previous release of excerpts from this very same transcript undermines his claims that the committee is somehow trying to keep some specific revelation from public view.”
Cummings argued that the screening group manager’s statements directly contradicted several serious and unsubstantiated accusations made by Issa and several other Republican committee chairmen over the past month. On May 14, for example:, Issa had stated, “This was the targeting of the president’s political enemies effectively and lies about it during the election year, so that it wasn’t discovered until afterwards.”
“To be clear, I am not suggesting that IRS employees in Washington, D.C. played no role in these activities,” Cummings acknowledged. “For example, the Inspector General has already reported that Lois Lerner, the Director of Exempt Organizations at the IRS, became aware of the use of inappropriate criteria in 2011. The Inspector General also identified a document called a ‘Be on The Lookout,’ or BOLO, that directed IRS employees in Cincinnati to send these applications to a specific group within the Cincinnati office that was coordinating with IRS employees in the Exempt Organizations Technical Unit in Washington, D.C. According to the Inspector General, after Ms. Lerner learned of the terms used by the screeners, she immediately ordered a halt to the use of these terms, resulting in a change to the BOLO in July 2011 to apply to all organizations “involved with political, lobbying, or advocacy for exemption under 501(c)(3) or 501(c)(4). These facts are a far cry from accusations of a conspiracy orchestrated by the White House to target the President’s political enemies. At this point in the investigation, not one witness who has appeared before the committee has identified any involvement by any White House officials in the identification or screening of Tea Party applicants for tax exempt status, and the committee has obtained no documents indicating any such involvement.”
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