House Republicans Clash with Justice Over Pick to Head IRS Probe

 Attorney General Eric Holder is overseeing the IRS investigation. Attorney General Eric Holder is overseeing the IRS investigation. Matt Rourke/AP

This story has been updated.

Two Republicans on the House oversight panel are questioning the Justice Department’s selection of a career trial attorney to lead the Obama administration’s criminal investigation into the Internal Revenue Service’s mishandling of primarily conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.

In a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder released Thursday by Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Issa and Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, complained that the official, Barbara Bosserman of the department’s Civil Rights Division, had donated at least $6,750 to President Obama’s political campaigns and the Democratic National Committee in the past several years, according to Federal Election Commission records.

“By selecting a significant donor to President Obama to lead an investigation into the inappropriate targeting of conservative groups, the department has created a startling conflict of interest,” the letter argued. “It is unbelievable that the department would choose such an individual to examine the federal government’s systematic targeting and harassment of organizations opposed to the president’s policies,” the letter continued. “At the very least, Ms. Bosserman’s involvement is highly inappropriate and has compromised the administration’s investigation of the IRS.”

Issa and Jordan, who have been communicating their concerns about the status of the IRS probe to the FBI since September, asked that Bosserman be replaced, demanding an explanation by Jan. 22.

Justice spokeswoman Dena Iverson said in a statement to Government Executive that “it is contrary to department policy and a prohibited personnel practice under federal law to consider the political affiliation of career employees or other non-merit factors in making personnel decisions. Additionally, removing a career employee from an investigation or case due to political affiliation, as Chairmen Issa and Jordan have requested, could also violate the equal opportunity policy and the law.”

The department also stressed that a career federal attorney who “has exercised constitutional rights to make a contribution to a political campaign does not mean she is not acting professionally and in accordance with her oath of office and duties as a member of the bar.”

In response, Becca Glover Watkins, Issa’s committee communications director, said, “The Department of Justice has the responsibility to ensure that there are no conflicts of interest between an attorney and the assignment. This was not the case in this particular investigation. Rule 1 of the DOJ Ethics Handbook states that employees should avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest.”

In October, the FBI sent a letter to Issa and the committee’s Ranking  Member Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., explaining that “Assistant Director Valerie Parlave oversees all investigations opened by the Bureau's Washington Field Office…,which [currently has 11 special agents and one forensic accountant assigned to the [IRS] investigation. Additional personnel will be utilized when necessary to further the investigation,” said the letter from the FBI’s Congressional Affairs Assistant Director Stephen Kelly and obtained by Government Executive. “Each FBI field office has identified at least one special agent to conduct interviews and cover investigative leads as needed.”

The FBI, the letter said, also is coordinating with the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration on the IRS investigation.

The administration promised a criminal probe soon after the controversy broke last May over an inspector general’s report that a unit within the IRS’s Exempt Organizations Division had singled out certain nonprofits for extra scrutiny as to whether their activities constitute social welfare or political action. Fact-finding civil probes by Senate and House committees continue.

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