Internal Revenue Commissioner John Koskinen on Tuesday declined to appear at a House Judiciary Committee hearing planned a week ago to investigate his “misconduct” in allegedly withholding information from Congress on the long-simmering charges that the agency is biased against conservatives.
“I have the deepest respect for you and for this committee, and recognize your committee’s responsibility to carefully evaluate these allegations,” Koskinen wrote in a letter dated May 23 and posted on the Judiciary Committee website. Having just come back from China and facing a “crowded schedule” that includes testimony Wednesday at the Ways and Means panel, Koskinen said the “short notice has left me without sufficient time to prepare to appear in person.”
He said he is, however, “willing to appear before the committee in the future. I enclose an initial statement summarizing why the allegations against me lack merit.”
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That posture angered Republicans on the Judiciary panel, prompting Chairman Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., after some debate, to rule against including Koskinen’s prepared defense in the hearing record.
“The legislative branch’s tools include the power to write the laws, the power of the purse, the impeachment power, and the power to censure,” Goodlatte said in opening the hearing. “These tools empower Congress to exert oversight over the executive and judicial branches, including rooting out corruption, fraud and abuse by government officials and taking further disciplinary action on behalf of the American people when warranted.”
Goodlatte called the allegations against Koskinen, who came to the IRS in the aftermath of the controversy in the Exempt Organizations division, “serious.” The chairman added: “On his watch, volumes of information crucial to the investigation into the IRS targeting scandal were destroyed. Before the tapes were destroyed, congressional demands, including subpoenas, for information about the IRS targeting scandal went unanswered. Koskinen provided misleading testimony before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee concerning IRS efforts to provide information to Congress.”
That drew a rebuke from committee ranking member Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., who noted that he personally has voted in six of the 19 times the committee has considered articles of impeachment, calling it a “solemn responsibility” and saying, “we do not rush into impeachment for short-term political gain.”
The committee must first examine the evidence and prove misconduct “beyond a reasonable doubt,” Conyers said. “A successful impeachment process must transcend party lines. Article I of the Constitution requires two-thirds of the Senate to convict on each article of impeachment.”
Conyers accused the majority of representing only a small group, citing objections to impeachment proceedings from House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis.; former Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio; Ways and Means member Rep. Charles Boustany, R-La.; and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, chairman of the Finance Committee. “The claim is not that we disagree with his decisions, or that we question the speed and completeness with which his agency provided answers—but that he knowingly and intentionally supplied us with false information,” Conyers said.
Panel Democrats clashed with Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., over whether the hearing was an investigation of the evidence of misconduct, or an “impeachment inquiry,” in Issa’s phrase. Koskinen has “delivered a self-serving statement and refused to be here for our impeachment inquiry,” said Issa, likening the commissioner’s tactic to that of former IRS official Lois Lerner, who appeared before Issa’s Oversight panel, proclaimed her innocence and pleaded the Fifth Amendment.
“Would we ordinarily accept such a statement?” Issa asked, saying he would agree to putting Koskinen’s letter in the record only if it was made clear the commissioner was invited, failed to appear and delivered a “self-serving statement.” In the end, the statement was not included, though Goodlatte did permit a written defense of Koskinen submitted by Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., ranking member of the House Oversight and Government Reform panel.
The hearing then proceeded with videos and testimony against Koskinen from witnesses who are members of the panel: Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah., and Ron DeSantis, R-Fla.
The hearing came the same day the IRS saw its budget targeted for a $236 million cut in the fiscal 2017 Financial Services spending bill unveiled by the House Appropriations Committee. The administration had requested an increase of $1 billion. The bill “holds the agency’s budget to below the 2008 level, but provides sufficient resources to perform its core duties,” the committee said in a statement.
“The IRS has been plagued in recent years by the inappropriate actions of its employees and political leadership, resulting in the waste of taxpayer dollars and in unjust treatment and targeting of certain ideological groups,” the appropriators added, itemizing a list of provisions aimed at trimming bonuses and preventing regulations that might appear to target groups for ideological reasons.
Separately, on Monday a conservative-leaning transparency group called the Cause of Action Institute filed a legal complaint against the IRS and Koskinen for “refusing to capture and preserve electronic communications of employees that deal with official business, as required by the law.”