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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

IRS, Benghazi and Accountability

Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani praised New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie for holding “people accountable who were responsible” for the “stupid” bridge lane closings — adding that’s something President Barack Obama “failed to do with Benghazi” and “failed to do with the IRS.” It depends on your definition of accountable, but the Obama administration did take disciplinary action in both cases, and the president directly did so with the IRS.

In response to an inspector general’s report that the IRS used “inappropriate criteria” to determine the tax-exempt status of conservative groups, Obama ordered the immediate removal of the acting IRS commissioner. A second IRS official resigned rather than be fired; a third retired; and a fourth was placed on administrative leave.

In the Benghazi case, four State Department employees were removed from their jobs and placed on leave after an independent review board criticized the “grossly inadequate” security at the Benghazi consulate that was attacked on Sept. 11, 2012. All four were reassigned when they returned to work.

Giuliani made his remarks on NBC’s “Meet the Press” while discussing Christie’s handling of the decision by some in his administration to unilaterally and without notice close two approach lanes to the George Washington Bridge.

Giuliani, Jan. 19: Look, the allegations are serious about the closure of the bridge. No question about it. But, on the other hand, the governor faced up to the allegations in a very serious way. … He held the people accountable who were responsible for it, something the president has failed to do with Benghazi, president has failed to do with the IRS.

Christie quickly acted after emails showed that his top aides without advance notice or explanation ordered two approach lanes of the bridge closed, causing traffic problems for four days in Fort Lee, N.J. On Jan. 8, it was disclosed that Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Anne Kelly had written an email that said, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.” A day later, at a Jan. 9 press conference, Christie said he had fired Kelly. He also announced that his former campaign manager, Bill Stepien, would no longer be his choice to become state party chairman and that he had directed Stepien to end his consulting work for the Republican Governors Association. Christie is chairman of the RGA.

Kelly’s email was sent to David Wildstein, who at the time was director of interstate capital projects at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owns and operates the bridge. Wildstein replied to Kelly’s email by writing, “Got it.” Wildstein resigned from that job in early December, saying that an investigation into the bridge lane closures was becoming a “distraction.” Days later, Deputy Executive Director of the Port Authority Bill Baroni resigned. Baroni was appointed by Christie on Feb. 19, 2010, and hired Wildstein.

All four people who were fired or resigned were political appointees or hires and served at the pleasure of the governor. That was not the case at the IRS and State Department, where career civil servants were at the center of those controversies.

The IRS Fallout

The inspector general for tax administration at the Treasury Department issued a report on May 14, 2013, that found the IRS used “inappropriate criteria,” beginning in March 2010, when vetting groups seeking tax-exempt status as nonprofit “social welfare” organizations. The criteria singled out groups for extra scrutiny if they had specific conservative names, such as “tea party,” and conservative descriptors, such as concern with government spending and debt.

A day after the report was released, Obama held a press conference and called the IG’s findings “an outrage.” The president asked Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew to conduct an audit “to see how this happened and who is responsible.” He also announced that Lew asked and received the resignation of acting IRS Commissioner Steven Miller. Lew issued a statement calling the agency’s actions “inexcusable and unacceptable” and said Miller’s resignation was needed “to restore public trust and confidence in the IRS.”

The agency’s tax-exempt office in the tax-exempt and government entities division was at the center of the controversy. Three top officials in that office were also removed in the days and weeks following the release of the report:

  • The IRS announced on May 16, 2013, that Joseph Grant, commissioner of the agency’s tax-exempt and government entities division, would retire on June 3. The announcement came two days after the IG report and just eight days after Grant was promoted from deputy commissioner to commissioner.
  • Lois Lerner, director of exempt organizations, was placed on administrative leave on May 23, 2013. She resigned in September after an internal review recommended that she be removed from her position. “Lawmakers said Lerner’s resignation came as an Accountability Review Board formed by temporary IRS chief Daniel Werfel was set to remove Lerner for mismanagement,” McClatchy reported on Sept. 23, 2013.
  • Holly Paz, director of the office of ruling and agreements within the tax-exempt and government entities division, was placed on administrative leave in early June 2013, according to the Washington Post. (We asked the IRS about the current status of Paz, but it has yet to respond. We will update this story if it does.)

The leadership team of the tax-exempt and government entities division has been either removed or reshuffled based on the organizational charts posted on the IRS website in May 2013 and now.

The Benghazi Fallout

The U.S. consulate in Benghazi was attacked on Sept. 11, 2012, by heavily armed extremists, resulting in the deaths of four U.S. citizens — including U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens.

On Dec. 19, 2012, an accountability board required by federal law to review such attacks released a report that found security at the compound was “grossly inadequate to deal with the attack that took place.” The Accountability Review Board blamed “[s]ystemic failures and leadership and management deficiencies at senior levels within two bureaus of the State Department.”

That day, four State Department employees were placed on administrative leave. All four were identified by name in a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee report: Eric Boswell, assistant secretary for diplomatic security; Scott Bultrowicz, director of diplomatic security service; Charlene Lamb, deputy assistant secretary for international programs; and Raymond Maxwell, deputy assistant secretary for Maghreb affairs.

A New York Times story on the report and the action taken against the four State employees quoted a Republican congressman as saying that the four people placed on administrative leave “have been held accountable.”

New York Times, Dec. 19, 2012: “The board severely critiques a handful of individuals, and they have been held accountable,” said Representative Ed Royce, Republican of California, who is the incoming chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “The degree that others bear responsibility warrants Congressional review, given the report’s rather sweeping indictment. And the Foreign Affairs Committee must hear from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton concerning her role, which this report didn’t address.”

At an Aug. 20, 2013, press briefing, State Department Deputy Spokeswoman Marie Harf said that the four employees would be “reassigned to different positions within the Department, and they will be returning to work.” She said the decision was based on a lengthy review that took “into account the totality of these four employees’ overall careers at the State Department.”

Harf, Aug. 20, 2013: Clearly, things could have been done better. I think that’s patently obvious to everybody who’s followed this for almost a year now. But again, we have to let the facts lead where they may, and these are people with real lives and real careers, and we can’t just take action that’s not warranted against them just to make us all feel better.

So, disciplinary action was taken — but no one was ultimately fired.

The State Department tells us in an email that Boswell now works on “real property issues”; Bultrowicz works on “management and administrative projects” in the office of the executive director of the Bureau of Diplomatic Security; and Charlene Lamb “is in training.” Raymond Maxwell retired.

Republicans criticized the State Department’s decision to reassign the employees. Royce — who months before said the four individuals “have been held accountable” — held a hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Sept. 18, 2013, titled, “Benghazi: Where is the State Department Accountability?” In his opening statement, he said, “no State Department personnel have been fired, or even disciplined. No one has missed a paycheck.”

A New York Times story on the Foreign Affairs hearing said that “Mr. Royce and other Republicans took direct aim at Patrick F. Kennedy, the under secretary for management, whose office oversees diplomatic security, for what they said was a lack of accountability at the department for the failures Benghazi revealed.” Kennedy called the reassignments “serious accountability.” Royce responded: “Reassignment just doesn’t cut it.”

Republicans have asserted that others should have been held accountable for the Benghazi attack.

Six Senate Republicans who filed an “additional views” addendum to a recent report on Benghazi by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence said Kennedy himself “should be held accountable.” The Senate Republicans said that Kennedy, who has been working in foreign service since 1973, was “uniquely situated to anticipate the potential for a terrorist attack on the Benghazi facilities,” based on his past government experience during the 1998 East Africa Embassy bombings and during his time in Iraq in the aftermath of Saddam Hussein’s removal as Iraqi leader.

The Republican addition to the report also said that “the final responsibility for security at diplomatic facilities lies with the former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton.”

Clearly, there can be differences of opinion over the level of accountability. But the administration did take disciplinary action against employees at the IRS and State Department. We leave it for you to decide if the Obama administration did enough.

— Eugene Kiely