Interrupting a routine hearing on identity theft and tax fraud, the top House oversight chairman on Friday ripped into acting Internal Revenue Service chief Danny Werfel for turning over documents too slowly for a congressional probe. He then announced he has signed a subpoena for the documents via the Treasury Department, IRS' parent agency.
“You are obstructing by limiting the scope of discovery,” Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, shouted as he stood up and displayed heavily blacked-out documents provided by the IRS. “You have delivered less than 1 percent of the documents, 2,500 pages, and are delivering no meaningful information.”
The committee had asked the agency to hand over documents based on 80 specific search terms designed to isolate items related to conservative groups whose applications for tax-exempt status may have been unfairly processed. Issa blasted Werfel, who has been on the job for nine weeks since the scandal over political targeting broke in May, for reducing the the nuber of search terms to 12 for the first group of documents. Then he exited the hearing room.
The documents are being redacted by 70 IRS attorneys and 30 other staff under code section 6103 to protect the privacy of individual taxpayers.
“We take very seriously the law and do the redactions to protect individual taxpayers," Werfel said as he struggled for a chance to respond. "The notion that we’re impeding the document production is totally false. The opposite is true, and there are substantial facts and evidence that demonstrate our cooperation.”
Werfel said his agency has delivered 16,000 pages to the oversight committee, but 70,000 to Congress as a whole. “We’ve come to 15 hearings, and made 19 employees available, representing thousands of work hours,” he said. Werfel described his “rolling basis” for document production and invited lawmakers’ to put specific requests at the front of the line. “It’s easy to pick up a document with a lot of black and say you’ve redacted, but some are taxpayer case files,” he said. “The entire file is protected under 6103, and it would be a crime to disclose it.” He said the committee’s remaining search terms will be applied in due course.
Werfel also said IRS has offered the committee testimony from William Wilkins, the IRS chief counsel and President Obama appointee whom Republicans believe is linked to the scandal, but that the committee has so far declined.
Issa, who later returned to the hearing, faulted Werfel for producing documents with numbers but no explanatory headers. “You’d better hope we don’t find something that shouldn’t have been redacted, as I expect we will,” he said. Issa also demanded faster production of emails from IRS officials to the White House and all emails from Lois Lerner, the head of the Exempt Organizations division who first revealed the political targeting and who is on administrative leave.
“It’s simple,” said Issa colleague Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, of the request on Lerner. “You go to her computer and you get all the emails she’s sent to anyone on the planet.”
Issa’s charges drew a rebuttal from ranking member Elijah Cummings, D-Md., who thanked Werfel for his service and argued that a key reason some documents were being withheld is that the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration “continues to block information on progressive groups coming to the committee.” Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., criticized the “drive-by-shooting nature” of Issa’s tactics, saying, “They’re not worthy of this committee.”
Issa told Werfel, “You leave me no choice” on the subpoena. “You don’t have the right to have private communications on government time. You will be long gone, the president will be long gone, and Lois Lerner will be retired by the time we get the information.”