House Republican Turns to GAO to Shed Light on IRS Debacle

Rep. Charles Boustany, R-La. Rep. Charles Boustany, R-La. Harry Hamburg/AP File Photo

A House Ways and Means Subcommittee chairman is seeking to bring the Government Accountability Office to bear on complexities of the politically disputed scandal over the Internal Revenue Service’s extra scrutiny of conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.

Oversight subcommittee chairman Rep. Charles Boustany, R-La., on Wednesday sent a letter to Congress’ watchdog seeking an assessment of how the IRS examines tax-exempt organizations, including which “standards and controls are in place to prevent future abuse of taxpayers.”

Asked how the GAO report might differ from existing audits by the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, a Ways and Means spokeswoman said it would be “broader.”

Boustany’s letter to Comptroller General Gene Dodaro asked GAO to describe the Exempt Organizations division’s “audit selection and audit practices, and whether such criteria meet various objectives such as impartiality, objectivity, tax law compliance and minimizing taxpayer burden.” In addition to describing the controls in place, GAO was asked to gauge controls for “assuring that its standards are known to staff and actually followed by staff throughout” the Exempt Organizations division, including how often the IRS finds the staff not following the standards and how frequently managers take corrective action.

Chuck Young, GAO’s managing director of public affairs, said the letter “just came in, and will go through our standard review process to determine whether we accept it. That usually takes a couple weeks.”

A Democratic House aide, noting the ongoing partisan political sniping over the lessons to be drawn from the existing TIGTA report on IRS misconduct, said, “The Republicans are very clear that the stage they’re in now is throwing mud against the wall and looking to see what sticks. They seem to make one baseless accusation after another without backing them up.”

Under GAO protocols, former Comptroller General David Walker told Government Executive, “If they get a request from the chairman of a relevant committee or subcommittee of jurisdiction, they will do the work unless it is beyond their scope or they deem it duplicative, or they deem it something that really should be done by the inspector general. Typically, they will do it.”

GAO differs from inspector generals, Walker said, in that it is “governmentwide and has a nationally and internationally recognized brand name within the accountability community.” IGs are presidentially appointed and Senate confirmed and focus on the activity of a particular department or agency. IGs “tend to be more investigative than GAO,” he said, though GAO has a small investigative unit. “GAO does more program evaluation and policy analysis.”

A TIGTA spokesman noted that the IG has been scheduled since last fall to do a follow-on report, a plan discussed during congressional hearings on the scandal in May. Its 2013 audit plan includes a coming report titled, “Consistency in Identifying and Reviewing Applications for Tax-Exempt Status Involving Political Advocacy Issues.”

The May TIGTA report at the center of the IRS “targeting” controversy has been attacked by Democrats as incomplete and neglectful of the alleged mishandling of applications from progressive groups.

The controversy has continued during the August recess. Reps. Sander Levin, D-Mich., and Elijah Cummings, D-Md., engaged in dueling Washington Post op-eds on the subject with Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., and House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif. Each accused the other party of being selective in creating a narrative of events.

Asked whether the May TIGTA report was incomplete or too focused on complaints only by conservatives, a government official who has worked in the IG community for more than a decade said, “Audits of government agencies or programs are process-driven, whether they are conducted by the GAO or an Office of Inspector General. In order to issue a report in a timely manner, at some point you have to stop auditing and start writing.”

The May report was an audit, meaning it was part of the audit program comprised of reviews mandated by statute or regulation. But TIGTA also maintains an aggressive investigative capability, as described on its website, which says the investigated mission is “completed through proactive and reactive investigative programs.” Each investigation begins, it says, “with the receipt of an allegation or complaint, which can be received from a variety of sources including: IRS employees, taxpayers, law enforcement agencies, other federal agencies or referrals from Congress.”

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This story has been updated to CLARIFY that the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration's May report was an audit, not an investigation. 

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