(Bloomberg) Internal Revenue Service Commissioner John Koskinen expressed regret Wednesday that the agency failed to preserve all the information congressional investigators sought in a 2014 probe of the agency, but told federal lawmakers it would be “improper” to impeach him.
During a 3 1/2-hour hearing dominated by partisan exchanges—with Democrats aiming barbs at Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump—Koskinen, 77, sought to persuade members of the House Judiciary Committee to stave off an impeachment drive by the ultra-conservative Freedom Caucus.
Koskinen’s appearance was arranged last week; congressional leaders promised the hearing after Freedom Caucus members backed off their demands for an immediate impeachment floor vote.
Democrats on the Judiciary panel heaped disdain on the hearing; Representative Jerrold L. Nadler of New York called it “an obvious sham.” Representative John Conyers, the Michigan Democrat who serves as the Judiciary panel’s ranking member, decried “partisan attacks” that he said were “doomed to fail” because of a lack of evidence of wrongdoing.
But Republicans, including Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, said Americans are frustrated by what he called a “double standard.” If taxpayers lost tax-related documents that the IRS sought, they’d be subject to consequences, he noted. “All we’re asking is that this guy no longer hold this office,” Jordan said. “In light of this fact pattern, I think this is the least we can do.”
Koskinen told the panel he regrets “failings” by himself and IRS staff members related to allegations that the agency destroyed e-mails sought by congressional investigators and that Koskinen misled Congress about those records. He said he didn’t try to be misleading. “I responded honestly and in good faith as events unfolded,” he said.
“I accept that it is up to you to judge my overall record, but I believe that impeachment would be improper,” Koskinen said. “It would create disincentives for many good people to serve. And it would slow the pace of reform and progress at the IRS.”
The House hasn’t impeached an appointed executive branch official in 140 years, and it has never impeached any official below the rank of cabinet secretary.
Koskinen, who took office in December 2013, was almost immediately mired in the agency’s response to a scandal that predated his tenure; IRS officials had acknowledged that they gave extra scrutiny to conservative groups that sought tax-exempt status beginning in 2010. Congressional subpoenas to the agency sought all communications sent or received by Lois Lerner, the agency’s former director of exempt organizations.
Despite the pending subpoenas, IRS employees in West Virginia magnetically erased 422 backup tapes, which eliminated as many as 24,000 of her e-mails, in March 2014. Subsequent investigations by the Justice Department and the Treasury Department’s inspector general found that the destruction was accidental.
Regardless, Koskinen testified to Congress in June 2014 that “since the start of this investigation, every e-mail has been preserved. Nothing has been destroyed.” He has said since that his testimony reflected his understanding at the time.
Several Democrats used Wednesday’s hearing to ask Koskinen questions about tax matters related to Trump, who has departed from four decades of tradition for presidential nominees by declining to release his tax returns.
Trump has said he’s under an IRS audit and won’t release his tax returns until the audit is concluded. In response to members’ questions, Koskinen said there’s no law to prevent individuals from releasing their tax returns, even if they’re under audit. While he didn’t discuss Trump individually—and he made clear repeatedly that the IRS doesn’t discuss individual taxpayers—Koskinen said a taxpayer’s advisers might warn against releasing returns that are under audit.
Others, including Representative Luis Gutierrez of Illinois, asked about Trump’s foundation. The Washington Post reported this week that the foundation had paid more than $250,000 to various parties to settle legal disputes related to his for-profit business interests. Koskinen said it’s illegal for insiders to benefit from their charities’ spending, but added that he couldn’t discuss individual cases.
Representative Jason Chaffetz, the Utah Republican who chairs the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, filed an impeachment resolution against Koskinen last year. He and other Republicans say Koskinen failed to make sure the IRS produced a full record of the subpoenaed e-mails and misled Congress about a hard-drive crash that lost some of Lerner’s e-mails, as well as the subsequent destruction of the backup tapes.
Chaffetz told Koskinen on Wednesday that he had been frustrated by what he called the commissioner’s failure to acknowledge to Congress that his June 2014 testimony wasn’t true. “This is the first time,” said Chaffetz. He added that he believes Koskinen should be held accountable.
A series of federal investigations into the IRS scandal faulted the agency for ineptness, but cleared it of criminal wrongdoing. In January 2014, the Federal Bureau of Investigation said it had found no evidence of bias that would warrant criminal charges. The Justice Department last October ended its probe, which found “substantial evidence of mismanagement, poor judgment, and institutional inertia,” but resulted in no charges.
Wednesday’s hearing is the third that the Judiciary panel has held on the allegations against Koskinen this year, but it’s the first where Koskinen has given sworn testimony. The panel hasn’t yet undertaken formal impeachment proceedings, which typically begin only after the House has passed by simple majority a resolution authorizing them. What follows, at least in modern times, has been a fact-finding process by the committee.
Under congressional tradition, both House leaders and the target of any impeachment proceeding would be allowed to make opening and closing statements, to examine and cross-examine witnesses, to offer evidence and to make objections.
Wednesday’s hearing wasn’t designed that way; instead Koskinen gave a prepared statement and then took questions from the panel. His lawyers said beforehand that they were worried that some members would try to treat the hearing like an actual impeachment—making it resemble what they called “a foreign show trial.”
“We are concerned that some may believe that Commissioner Koskinen’s voluntary appearance at this hearing is an appropriate substitute for regular order and the traditional approach to addressing impeachment proceedings,” his lawyers wrote to Representative Bob Goodlatte, the Virginia Republican who chairs the Judiciary panel.
Whether the hearing will prevent the House from moving toward impeachment remains to be seen. Members of the House Freedom Caucus, which had pressed for a faster floor vote, said last week that today’s hearing would “give every American the opportunity to hear John Koskinen answer under oath why he misled Congress, allowed evidence to be destroyed, and defied congressional subpoenas and preservation orders.”
Goodlatte signaled during the hearing that the Judiciary Committee will continue to gather evidence, telling members they’d have five days to submit additional questions. Also, Koskinen said he would comply with a new committee request to turn over all written communications from IRS officials about how to retain and preserve the e-mails that were sought under earlier subpoenas.
House Speaker Paul Ryan has said he prefers for matters to make their way to the floor for votes in “regular order”—that is, by way of consideration by committees of jurisdiction. Still, Representative John Fleming of Louisiana, who spearheaded the drive for a floor vote, has said the Freedom Caucus could still try to bring an impeachment resolution to the floor in November “if regular order is not followed through with.”
And one caucus member, Representative Tim Huelskamp of Kansas, who lost his primary race for re-election, said Wednesday morning that he is still weighing whether to force a vote on the House floor.
“It depends on how today’s hearing goes,” he said.
On Tuesday, several Democratic members of the Oversight committee and the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee wrote to Goodlatte criticizing Fleming for campaign advertisements he has aired while running for an open U.S. Senate seat in Louisiana.
“Specifically, one of his radio ads claims: ‘The head of the IRS ordered 24,000 emails erased before Congress could review them, making sure the American people will never know the real truth,” said the letter, which was signed by 32 Democrats, including the ranking Democrat on the Oversight panel, Elijah Cummings of Maryland.
“The fundamental problem with this accusation is that there is no evidence to support it,” the representatives’ letter says. It notes that the U.S. Treasury Department’s inspector general concluded that “no evidence was uncovered that any IRS employees had been directed to destroy or hide information” from Congress or other federal investigators.
—With assistance from Erik Wasson
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