Congress hits at the IRS for inconsistency, the IRS hits back with weak damage control

By Michael Riconda

220px-Trey_Gowdy,_Official_Portrait,_112th_CongressOn July 19, Representative Trey Gowdy (R-South Carolina) delivered an impassioned criticism of the Internal Revenue Service, and particularly its former Exempt Organizations head Lois Lerner and White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, for contradicting themselves in presenting their narratives of the targeting of activists by the IRS.

Specifically, Gowdy took issue with the “evolution of the defense,” where Lerner blamed two rogue field agents at first before moving on to claim the White House was not in on the scheme and that left-leaning as well as right-leaning groups were targeted, as if those constituted a defense of the IRS’ alleged continuation of the targeting beyond Lerner’s notification and the beginning of her probe into the matter.

While it is true that not only Tea Party groups were targeted (among the organizations on the IRS’ “Be on the lookout,” or “BOLO” list, were groups with “progressive” or “Occupy” in their names), there is nothing suggesting that targeting of political activists in a nonpartisan fashion does not qualify as targeting. Neither do claims that the scandal did not reach the White House. More to the point, however, it attempts to dance around the serious concern Gowdy pointed out.

Since the scandal broke, IRS officials have given frequently contradictory accounts of the scale and scope of the use of BOLO lists. Lerner claimed that as early as 2011, she had discovered the “low level” employees responsible for the activities and initiated an audit of the office involved. However, as early as March 2012, former IRS director Douglass Shulman stated before Congress that there was no targeting.

IRS Deputy Commissioner Steve Miller appears to have some issues with Congressional inquiries as well. Miller was told of the investigation as early as May 3, but failed to disclose it on three separate occasions, once to the Ways and Means Committee in July and twice to Congressmen Rep. Charles Boustany and Sen. Orrin Hatch.

Evidence has not been presented directly linking the White House to the scandal, but the IRS seemed intent on notifying top officials close to Obama about the probe as it developed. The Inspector General briefed Treasury Department officials in the Obama Administration of the probe in June 2012. This occurred under former Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner’s tenure. Later in March 2013, incoming Treasury Secretary Jack Lew was notified of the investigation.

That makes two treasury secretaries who knew, but allegedly never told Obama. Even more troubling, recent statements by IRS lawyer Carter Hull seem to expand the scope of the targeting itself by suggesting IRS Chief Counsel William Wilkins-an Obama appointee-not only knew but participated in the targeting. Elizabeth Hofacre, who processed Tea Party applications at the Cincinnati office where the targeting occurred, echoed Hull by explaining she was directed by IRS officials in Washington.

The Inspector General’s report on the situation came out in April, providing a brief window between Obama’s notification of a finding and Lerner’s revelation of the scandal in May. It presents a narrative consistent with Carney’s claim that Obama was notified of the situation for the first time in April, but inconsistent with what we know the Treasury Department learned in 2012, much less Obama’s own claims that he only found out about the targeting when it broke in the news in May.

One appointee, two Treasury Secretaries and an unknown number of possible D.C. insiders knew of the situation, and the claim is that Obama only heard about it in the news. Even if we maintain skepticism of a White House role in the targeting, Obama admittedly has some explaining to do as to how he could have never heard before May.

Lerner received strong criticism for pleading the fifth and refusing to answer Congressional inquiries and demonstrated from the subsequent outrage that the IRS has not satisfied others with its claims of minimal involvement. At this stage, we still do not know the exact mechanics behind the scandal. We do know, however, that Gowdy’s outrage and Lerner’s silence are indicative of dismal damage control at best and deeper roots of the scandal at worst.

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