Surprised? Senate panel divided on IRS targeting

A Senate panel probing inappropriate Internal Revenue Service targeting of conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status rendered a split decision Friday, with Democrats and Republicans offering polar opposite viewpoints.

The Democrat-led Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations issued a 222-page report and more that 1,700 pages of supporting documents, effectively concluding the IRS has already admitted wrongdoing and that it inappropriately scrutinized groups affiliated with both parties who were seeking tax-exempt status and had politically charged names.

The panel’s Democrats also faulted the Treasury Department’s Inspector General for Tax Administration, Russell George, saying he failed to note in his initial 2013 TIGTA report that there was no evidence of political motivation in the inappropriate scrutiny. George said that later in a letter to the subcommittee.

“After reviewing nearly 800,000 pages of documents and conducting nearly two dozen IRS and TIGTA employee interviews, the investigation found that the IRS used inappropriate selection criteria, burdensome questions, and lengthy delays in processing applications for … tax exempt status from both conservative and liberal groups” Chairman Carl Levin, D-Michigan, said in a statement accompanying the Senate report.

Levin’s statement said the report came also from the ranking minority on the panel, Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona. But committee Republican staff members and their bosses issued their own dissenting views under the heading “IRS Targeting Tea Party Groups.”

The Senate Finance Committee, the House Ways and Means Committee and the House Committee on Oversight all have ongoing investigations into the IRS flap.

Those controlled by Republicans in the House of Representatives have taken a much more hostile approach, often dragging in IRS Commissioner John Koskinen, a fix-it man for past Republican and Democrat administrations, to verbally abuse him,

Koskinen issued a statement Friday, promising to look closely at the detailed report and to continue working with the remaining congressional committees.

“We are anxious to work with these committees to help them complete their investigations. To date, we have produced nearly 1 million documents to the tax-writing committees for their investigations,” he said. “Today's 222-page report and supporting documents reflect the large volume of material the IRS has provided with Congress in their important oversight role.”

There are still plenty of unanswered questions about how the IRS began, and ended, a program that subjected tea party organizations and other conservative groups to special scrutiny when seeking a special tax-exempt status. Democrats point out that they too were targeted, though the evidence shows this was a much smaller number.

The issue exploded into public view last year when the head of the Exempt Organizations division, Lois Lerner, tried to get ahead of what was going to be a negative report from the inspector general. Answering a planted question, she acknowledged that conservative groups were wrongly subjected to a closer look.

Hauled in front of Congress, Lerner proclaimed her innocence and then refused to answer questions, citing her constitutional rights. That infuriated GOP lawmakers, who later passed a motion through the House of Representatives finding her in contempt and recommending to the Justice Department that she be prosecuted.

More recently, as Congress tried to get her emails from the time period in question, the IRS claimed that her hard drive failed and that information on it was not retrievable. The IRS has tried to piece together some of those emails from sources with whom Lerner was known to have communicated.

Adding to the muddle, a lawsuit from the conservative group Judicial Watch has forced the IRS to release in dribs and drabs emails from Lerner and other decision makers. Many of these emails have the appearance of political bias, although often they lack a fuller context or a broader range of mails.

McClatchy has asked the IRS to hand over, under the Freedom of Information Act, all emails from members of Congress to Lerner’s division. The IRS has failed to provide that information since the initial request in June 2013. Some of this communication has been shared with lawmakers or been handed over in lawsuits.