After three months on the job, Internal Revenue Commissioner John Koskinen faced a grilling on Wednesday from House GOP lawmakers who accused him of withholding internal agency emails demanded in a February subpoena. But Koskinen said his staff is fully responding to the request as originally defined, warning that a broadened interpretation of which categories of documents are relevant “will get you not thousands but millions of documents, and we’ll be at this not for months, but for years.”
House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., called the hearing to pressure Koskinen to speed delivery of emails from four IRS employees involved in the controversy over what critics have called “political targeting” of primarily tea party nonprofit groups applying for tax-exempt benefits. “The American people don’t have the faith they used to have in the IRS as a nonpartisan, nonpolitical agency,” Issa told the commissioner. “But the IRS is a political agency. I accept that you have one of the hardest jobs anywhere in Washington, but unfortunately you’re more concerned with managing the political fallout than with cooperating with this committee.”
Issa called Koskinen’s performance “dismal” for not “simply ordering people to comply with the outstanding subpoena” that Republicans believe is crucial to understanding the “intentions” and “overt political activity” before the 2012 elections suggested by email snippets from IRS employees, namely former Exempt Organizations Director Lois Lerner; her No. 2, Holly Paz; Chief Counsel William Wilkins; and Chief of Staff Jonathan Davis.
Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, mocked the commissioner for sorting and redacting the documents, saying, “The same people who picked Lois Lerner to fix the problem appointed John Koskinen to fix the agency.” Jordan demanded, “What part of all don’t you understand? We don’t care what you consider relevant.”
But Koskinen challenged Issa’s assertion that his team could assemble the emails in a matter of hours. “There are millions of emails, stored on servers, and we are providing or are in the process of providing them all in an orderly way -- we never said we would not provide them,” Koskinen said.
He noted that the 250 IRS specialists working on the project have to redact the documents to avoid violating privacy rules, and added that IRS has already delivered 700,000 pages to the Senate and other House panels, and that another batch was to be delivered later on Wednesday.
“But there is overwhelming volume, and it takes time to redact -- it can’t be done overnight,” the commissioner said, noting that Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., had recently praised his agency’s responsiveness using search terms agreed upon by IRS and congressional staff. He said IRS had spent $15 million on the project and had to upgrade its computers along the way.
The focus, Koskinen said, had been on Lois Lerner and the “determinations” phase of the tax-exempt organizations process. If the lawmakers want to widen the focus to include emails on examinations, appeals and proposed regulations to address social welfare groups’ status, “we’d be happy to continue, but you’ll get hundreds of thousands of pages, and your investigators will be overwhelmed,” he said. A lot of what’s been provided is duplicative and irrelevant, he added. “If you want it without any selection process, we will provide it, but it won’t help the investigation proceed,” he told lawmakers. “You may want this investigation to go on forever.”
Issa replied that the documents supplied to Ways and Means are “a limited subset that doesn’t satisfy your obligation to produce it all for this committee.” He asked, “Did you have to upgrade your computers just to provide all of Lois Lerner’s emails?”
Oversight and Government Reform Ranking Member Elijah Cummings, D-Md., repeated his earlier observations that the report that triggered the IRS controversy last May -- from the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration -- “never found any evidence” of political abuse at the IRS. “Rather than continuing this partisan search for nonexistent connections to the White House, I believe the committee should focus squarely on the recommendations made by the inspector general,” all nine of which, Cummings noted, the agency has addressed.
Rep. William Clay Jr., D-Mo., lamented “the unbelievably broad demands by the chairman,” citing one provision in the subpoena seeking all documents from 2009 through 2013 “referring or related to the tax-exempt applications.” He asked Issa whether he could be more specific on what he seeks from Lerner (Issa said “no”), with Clay adding, “This committee has moved from government oversight to government abuse.”
Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., stressed that “discriminating against Americans based on their political views is a serious issue that justifies the scope of this inquiry. We want to send a message to the IRS that targeting people is threatening freedom,” Lynch said. “Unfortunately, this opportunity is being fumbled by the chairman, who is being one-sided.”
Koskinen said he is committed to “not discriminating against any individual for their political beliefs, or how they voted in the last election.” He said morale at the IRS “is surprisingly better than I thought, considering what federal employees have been through in the last years and what the IRS has been through in the past year.”
He added that overall, IRS has made “significant progress” addressing the problems in processing applications for 501(c)( 4) status. As of March 13, 87 percent -- or 126 out of 145 priority backlog cases -- had been closed, he reported, with 98 approved. “Of the remaining 28 [that weren’t approved], most were closed either because the organization withdrew the application or it failed to respond to our questions,” he said.
He said he “would like the public to be satisfied” with the ongoing investigations. “I would like it earlier rather than later, but you play with the hand you’re dealt.”
The political maneuvering around the dispute continued on Wednesday as Issa entered into the hearing record a new statement from House Counsel Kerry Kircher concerning the legal status of Lerner’s vulnerability to a contempt of Congress charge for having invoked, during two appearances before the committee, her Fifth Amendment rights not to testify. Kircher concluded that the committee had sufficiently advised Lerner that she faced contempt if she failed to testify. An earlier finding by attorneys assembled by Democrats on the committee came to the opposite conclusion, saying the panel had forfeited that option.