Monday, June 24, 2013
The IRS's Best Friend in Congress
Rep. Elijah Cummings says the House investigation is a 'witch hunt.' Yet revealing evidence keeps coming.
Rep. Elijah Cummings (right) and Acting IRS Commissioner Danny Werfel at a hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, June 6. Reuters
By ELIANA JOHNSON
The House Oversight Committee's investigation into the Internal Revenue Service's discrimination against conservative groups continues—but at least one unenthusiastic member seems to think the committee's work is done.
Over the objections of Chairman Darrell Issa (R., Calif.), Rep. Elijah Cummings (D., Md.) last week released online the full, 205-page transcript of an interview that committee investigators conducted with an IRS employee in Cincinnati named John Shafer. Mr. Cummings explained that he was compelled to release the Shafer transcript because it explodes Mr. Issa's "conspiracy theories"—chiefly, that the White House played a role in the targeting of conservative groups, and that it was orchestrated out of IRS headquarters in Washington, D.C. In fact, Mr. Issa has never said the former, and much that is known so far about the IRS scandal suggests that the Washington connection is substantial.
Mr. Cummings's enthusiasm for defending the IRS may make him a lonely figure among the 22 Republicans and 16 Democrats on the House Oversight Committee, but he is likely to find an ally in his chief counsel on the committee. She is Susanne Sachsman Grooms, who worked for the IRS between 2008 and 2011 as an adviser to the deputy commissioner for services and enforcement and then as a senior counselor to the chief of criminal investigations. At the time, the deputy commissioner for services and enforcement—her boss—was none other than Steven Miller, who held the post of IRS commissioner from November 2012 until his resignation in May after the scandal broke. Mr. Cummings also has a strong tie to the Obama administration: His staff director on the Oversight Committee, David Rapallo, is a former White House lawyer.
The release of the Shafer transcript came after a June 12 interview with Politico in which Mr. Cummings labeled the Oversight Committee's investigation a "witch hunt"—in other words, something that should end immediately. A few days before that, in a June 9 CNN interview, he said, "The IG made some recommendations, those recommendations are being adopted by the IRS . . . I think we're in great shape."
As it happens, the revelation of Mr. Shafer's testimony isn't likely to discourage the investigation.
Mr. Shafer, the manager of an IRS screening group in the Cincinnati office, told committee investigators that in February 2010 one of his employees brought a tea-party application for nonprofit designation to his attention.
Given the media coverage that the tea party was receiving, Mr. Shafer deemed the application a "high profile" matter and alerted his managers to its existence. Shortly thereafter, according to his testimony, lawyers in the IRS's Washington, D.C., office said, "We want to look at the case." On the evidence of the Washington office's interest in that initial case, Mr. Shafer said IRS agents in Cincinnati then held the applications of tea-party groups until they were given "further direction" from D.C.
Case closed, according to Mr. Cummings, who wrote in a letter to Mr. Issa: "These statements by the screening group manager appear to directly contradict your allegations of political motivation."
If Mr. Shafer or Mr. Cummings could read the minds of IRS officials in Washington, that might be true. In reality, Mr. Shafer was unable to say why officials in Washington were so interested in the tea-party cases or whether the officials' interest was politically motivated.
"Did you have an understanding at the time about what the reason was for sending the cases [to Washington] for review?" investigators asked him. "No," he responded. They pressed further. "Do you have personal knowledge of the motivations of Washington and how they worked the tea party cases?" "I do not," Mr. Shafer said.
The testimony offered by other Cincinnati IRS employees—which I have reviewed in full, un-redacted form—contradicts Mr. Cummings's claims and those of Obama administration officials, such as White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, who has pointed the finger at "line employees" in Cincinnati. The IRS interviews suggest that the agency's officials in Washington closely controlled the review of tea-party cases.
Consider Gary Muthert, the Cincinnati IRS screener who told investigators that he began singling out tea-party applications at the request of Mr. Shafer, who told him "Washington, D.C., wanted some cases."
And there is Elizabeth Hofacre, the Cincinnati IRS agent who for several months in 2010 was charged with handling all tea-party applications. She told the committee that she understood the "lookout list" used to flag the applications of tea-party groups was also intended to flag those of Republican and conservative groups. When the applications of liberal groups came in, she sent them along for general processing.
Ms. Hofacre also told the committee's investigators that IRS lawyers in Washington were controlling her every move. "I was taking all my direction from EO Technical," she told investigators, referring to the group of IRS tax lawyers in Washington that handles tax-exempt organizations. She went on to say that she had "no autonomy" in her handling of the cases, and she termed the behavior of IRS officials in Washington in the matter "very unusual."
Mr. Cummings's efforts have drawn attention away from these troubling accounts, which have been partially released by the House Oversight Committee—and instead bogged the committee down with questions of whether to release full interview transcripts.
Mr. Issa opposes releasing the full transcripts. Disclosing them, he says, threatens to compromise the investigation by providing future witnesses a "road map" of the scope and content of likely questions. It also provides them with time to formulate their answers and to ensure that their testimony corroborates that of other witnesses. Mr. Cummings, who has already made his position clear by unilaterally releasing the Shafer transcript, has called the committee chairman's position on the matter "bulls---."
Many questions remain for the committee to address, even if Mr. Cummings might disagree. Who at the IRS, for instance, developed the intrusive and exhaustive questions that were sent to the tea-party groups? Why did so many of those groups have to wait years for their applications to be processed, and why are many more still waiting? Who specifically were the IRS officials in Washington directing the Cincinnati agents targeting the tea-party organizations?
If the House Oversight Committee can overlook the distractions thrown up by one of its members, the answers may prove illuminating about the way Washington has worked during the Obama administration.