Administration Stands Behind IRS Chief Amid Calls for His Impeachment

IRS chief John Koskinen testifies on Capitol Hill over the summer. IRS chief John Koskinen testifies on Capitol Hill over the summer. Andrew Harnik/AP

This story has been updated. 

Just days after the Justice Department declined to prosecute Internal Revenue Service employees involved in the political bias controversy, a House chairman introduced articles of impeachment against Commissioner John Koskinen.

The Obama administration on Wednesday responded with two statements decrying the resolution drafted by Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, who said Koskinen “violated the public trust” in responding to investigations by congressional committees.

Koskinen “failed to comply with a congressionally issued subpoena, documents were destroyed on his watch, and the public was consistently misled,” Chaffetz said in a statement. Specifically, Koskinen is said to have failed to promptly notify Congress that emails involving former IRS Exempt Organizations director Lois Lerner were missing. The documents were later found to have been destroyed by staffers apparently unaware of their importance.

“Impeachment is the appropriate tool to restore public confidence in the IRS and to protect the institutional interests of Congress,” Chaffetz said. “This action will demonstrate to the American people that the IRS is under repair, and signal that executive branch officials who violate the public trust will be held accountable.”

The resolution was backed by 18 Republican members of Chaffetz’s panel, and was referred to the House Judiciary Committee.

The IRS in a statement said the agency “vigorously disputes the allegations in the resolution. We have fully cooperated with all of the investigations.”

A Treasury Department spokeswoman said the move to impeach “is completely meritless and a distraction from important work on behalf of the American people‎. To be clear, the IRS has cooperated with all congressional investigations and has committed to continuing to work with Congress moving forward. Secretary [Jack] Lew continues to have full confidence in Commissioner Koskinen and believes that his decades of experience turning around both public and private institutions continue to make him the right person to lead the IRS during a critical time for the agency.”

Treasury added: “Throughout his time as commissioner he has demonstrated strong leadership, including by delivering a generally successful tax filing season this year despite significant budget challenges. He is a man of the highest integrity with a steadfast commitment to public service during difficult times,” including at the White House in the run-up to the year 2000 when there were widespread fears that computers would malfunction at the change of the Millennium.

Koskinen came to the IRS in December 2013—six months after the agency was rocked by charges of political targeting of nonprofit groups applying for tax-exempt status. His appearances before a Congress that has slashed his budget have been sometimes tension-filled as members blasted his agency for such lapses as failing to find back-up tapes containing Lois Lerner emails that were quickly located by the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration.

This July, Chaffetz and 51 other Republicans wrote to President Obama asking him to fire Koskinen, but received no response.

On Tuesday, Koskinen appeared before a friendlier Senate Finance Committee, which held a hearing to examine the IRS’s response to the panel’s bipartisan report on the political bias controversy—a report that tended to portray the agency’s mishandling of applications more as poor management.

Koskinen reiterated to the senators that his agency had cooperated fully with that committee and other investigations, and that IRS had implemented all of recommendations from May 2013 report by the Treasury inspector general.

He said IRS had taken a number of steps to ensure that Tax Exempt division “employees, managers and leadership operate in an environment of accountability in regard to the processing of applications for tax-exempt status. For example, all TE/GE managers are now required to conduct regular workload reviews with their employees. In addition, the results of these reviews are shared with the senior leadership of each function,” he said. “I would also note that the entire leadership chain of command, starting with the commissioner’s office and running down to the director of Exempt Organizations and her direct reports, was replaced over two years ago.”

Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said, “It is fair to say that the agency still carries with it a cloud of perceived political bias,” but he thanked Koskinen for the agency’s “thoughtful response to our recommendations.” Hatch encouraged the commissioner to focus less on the pending new IRS regulation to police political activity by social welfare nonprofits and “to focus instead on actions to restore the IRS’s credibility.”

Hatch did not respond to Government Executive requests for comment on the impeachment move. A House Judiciary Committee aide said, “We are aware of the filing of the articles of impeachment and are examining them. We will have more to say about it at a later date.”

One Judiciary member, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., said in a statement, “This is a serious matter. Commissioner Koskinen oversaw the IRS at a time when key documents responsive to congressional subpoenas were destroyed. Furthermore, in sworn testimony before the Oversight Committee during my chairmanship, he misrepresented his agency’s response to lawful inquiries into the IRS targeting scandal.  The American people deserve better from their public servants, but this has become an all too familiar pattern in an administration that chooses to misdirect, obscure and outright lie rather than truthfully describe their own actions.”

Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., who has sparred with both Chaffetz and Issa on IRS issues, said, “This ridiculous resolution will demonstrate nothing but the Republican obsession with diving into investigative rabbit holes that waste tens of millions of taxpayer dollars while having absolutely no positive impact on a single American. Calling this resolution a ‘stunt’ or a ‘joke’ would be insulting to stunts and jokes.”

Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal devoted an editorial to favoring the move, saying that Koskinen has “become the single greatest hurdle to public accountability.” The editorialists said the last time a Cabinet office or agency head was impeached was in 1876. The subject was Grant Administration War Secretary William Belknap for taking kickbacks in a trading post scandal.

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