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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

IRS Probe So Far Yields Partial, Partisan ‘Facts’

The House Oversight Committee chairman and the ranking Democrat are overreaching in recent statements about the committee’s investigation of the IRS. Chairman Darrell Issa has yet to produce evidence of his theory that the Obama administration in Washington “directly … ordered” the agency to target conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status. But Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings has failed to provide evidence that there was “no political involvement,” and he goes too far when he says “the case is solved.”

The two men have been engaged in a high-profile exchange in recent days over the Obama administration’s level of involvement in the IRS controversy. The Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration found that the IRS used “inappropriate criteria” to determine the tax-exempt status of “social welfare” groups. Specifically, the IRS singled out groups for extra scrutiny based on search terms that were exclusively conservative descriptors – including names, such as “tea party” or “patriot,” or policy positions, such as concern over government spending and debt.

The back-and-forth between Issa and Cummings began after Issa went on CNN’s “State of the Union” on June 2 to allege that Obama administration officials in Washington ordered the targeting of conservative groups.

Issa, June 2: As you know, as late as last week the administration’s still trying to say there’s a few rogue agents in Cincinnati, when in fact the indication is they were directly being ordered from Washington.

The IG report found no evidence of that. In fact, the report said that employees in the Cincinnati office “developed and implemented” the “inappropriate critiera” in early 2010 and Lois Lerner, the director of the exempt organizations division, “immediately directed that the criteria be changed” once she learned about it in June 2011.

To support his claim, Issa released excerpts of interviews that his committee conducted with IRS staffers based in Cincinnati. But the excerpts were hardly conclusive. Asked if Washington directed the extra scrutiny of the tax-exempt applications of conservative groups, one unnamed IRS staffer replied, “I believe so.” The excerpts show the witness didn’t know for certain whether orders came from Washington or not.

Here is an excerpt released by Issa with that witness:

Q: So is it your perspective that ultimately the responsible parties for the decisions that were reported by the IG are not in the Cincinnati office?

A: I don’t know how to answer that question. I mean, from an agent standpoint, we didn’t do anything wrong. We followed directions based on other people telling us what to do.

Q: And you ultimately followed directions from Washington; is that correct?

A: If direction had come down from Washington, yes.

Q: But with respect to the particular scrutiny that was given to Tea Party applications, those directions emanated from Washington; is that right?

A: I believe so.

CNN host Candy Crowley challenged Issa’s lack of conclusive evidence, and he responded by saying there are more transcripts to release and more evidence to collect. “We’re getting to proving it,” he said.

But the evidence he has released so far hasn’t proved it.

Then again, Cummings hasn’t supplied evidence that proves his claim, either.

On June 9, the ranking Democrat on the committee appeared on “State of the Union” and CBS’ “Face the Nation” and discussed just-released excerpts of other committee interviews that he said proved Issa wrong. He told Crowley, “[T]he case is solved.”

The excerpts Cummings released included the testimony of a self-described conservative Republican who was the IRS screening group manager in the Cincinnati office at the time. The manager said that a screening agent in Cincinnati was the first to bring the tea party cases to his attention and that he notified “EO Technical” (Exempt Organizations Technical in Washington) “based upon, you know, the high-profile issue.”

Cummings, “Face the Nation,” June 9: This Republican manager said there was no White House involvement, no political involvement, none of that. He made the decision doing the best he could to have some kind of consistency.

But the excerpts are not as conclusive as Cummings portrayed them.

The IRS manager, who was not named by the committee, said, “I am not aware of that,” when asked directly about a political bias or political motivations behind the targeting of conservative groups. And he said he had “no reason to believe” that the White House was involved in the decision to target conservatives.

The excerpts released by Cummings also included parts of testimony given by an IRS screening agent based in Cincinnati who said he developed the initial criteria in early 2010 — a statement that is consistent with the IG report. But the excerpts do not address why the agent used search terms that only targeted conservatives. They also don’t fully explain why the manager considered the tea party cases a “high-profile issue,” or what Exempt Organizations Technical in Washington did with the tea party cases forwarded by the Cincinnati office.

(So-called “social welfare organizations” seeking tax-exempt 501(c)(4) applications can be involved in political activity as long as it is not their “primary activity.” It is the job of the Exempt Organizations division to determine if the group qualifies for such status. EO Technical provides advice to area managers on “unusual or complex” cases or when there is a “lack of uniformity” in handling such cases.)

The Wall Street Journal reviewed other excerpts of committee interviews with IRS staffers based in Cincinnati that show Carter Hull, a lawyer in EO Technical, was involved in the drafting of some of the questions that were later sent to groups flagged for extra scrutiny. But there’s much that we don’t know — including what advice Hull provided, whether it was followed, and whether his advice was meant just for conservative groups or for all groups seeking tax-exempt status that were engaged or planned to be engaged in political activity.

The Journal found the transcripts it reviewed to be inconclusive.

Wall Street Journal, June 5: The transcripts don’t suggest that Obama administration officials at the Treasury or the White House knew of or were involved in the targeting. Many questions remain unanswered, including who ordered the targeting.

The excerpts released by Issa and Cummings are just snippets of hours-long interviews. Issa said he does not want to release the full transcripts of interviews conducted so far, saying it would compromise the investigation. That may be. But the public trust is compromised when the committee’s top members selectively release partial transcripts that provide an incomplete picture of what has become a partisan investigation.

— Eugene Kiely