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A Better-Prepped FBI Director?

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Conservative lawmakers and media outlets took notice on June 13 when departing FBI Director Robert Mueller appeared to muff an answer to a question on progress the bureau might be making in investigating the Internal Revenue Service for mishandling applications from largely conservative nonprofits seeking tax-exempt status.

In a repartee with Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, Mueller said he was not aware of how many agents or who within the FBI was at work on the probe promised back in May by Attorney General Eric Holder.

"This is the most important case in the country for the past six weeks and you don't know who the most important person is, leading the case?" pressed Jordan, a member of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee who is involved the panel’s own investigation.

"Not off the top of my head," Mueller said.

"You've had a month to investigate, and you can't even tell me who the lead investigator is? This is what happened. You can't even tell me what happened?" Jordan said. 

Flash forward to Wednesday, June 19, when Mueller appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee. This time the IRS issue was raised by Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., who said he had been on the phone that morning with one of the tea party activists who recently recounted her bad experience with the tax agency before the House Ways and Means Committee. “She told me she has been in touch with a lawyer and with other potential victims, and no one had interviewed her nor even had an appointment set up,” Sessions said. “Is the FBI the lead agency in the IRS matter?”

“Yes,” Mueller replied. “Over a dozen agents have been assigned, locally. I can tell you it falls within the purview of Valarie Parlave, who is assistant director in charge of our Washington field office. We also have people at headquarters who are monitoring it,” Mueller continued, assuring Sessions that the bureau has responded to general complaints. But he didn’t provide any more names.

“That seems pretty slow,” Sessions said. “Are you running behind here?”

Mueller replied that he is not “familiar with the day-in-day-out details, but will go back and see where that is.”

Sessions insisted that any good probe should start with contacting the victims and asking them what happened. Mueller responded, “As a prosecutor you obviously know you have to have the records so you have the requisite materials to do the interview. I’m hypothesizing because I don’t know who at that particular level is doing interviews.”

“I think it’s too slow,” Sessions said. “Somebody needs to go out and find out what the problem is. Talk to the people first.” Mueller assured the senator “there is a sense of urgency within the agency -- it is not languishing.”

Charlie Clark joined Government Executive in the fall of 2009. He has been on staff at The Washington Post, Congressional Quarterly, National Journal, Time-Life Books, Tax Analysts, the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, and the National Center on Education and the Economy. He has written or edited online news, daily news stories, long features, wire copy, magazines, books and organizational media strategies.

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