IRS Chief Apologizes at Hearing, But Calls Talk of Impeachment Unwarranted

IRS chief John Koskinen is sworn in before the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday. IRS chief John Koskinen is sworn in before the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday. Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

At a House hearing packed with presidential campaign references, Internal Revenue Commissioner John Koskinen on Wednesday stood his ground against Republicans pursuing his impeachment.

He expressed regret, however, that he hadn’t more carefully worded some past testimony on the so-called IRS targeting controversy and reported problems to lawmakers more promptly.   

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., titled the hearing “Impeachment Articles Referred on John Koskinen, Part III,” following an aborted effort the week before for a House floor impeachment vote. But Democrats, who mocked the event as a politicized waste of time, argued that the hearing title was a misnomer because the “referral” came not via a full House vote but from the majority on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

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“The allegations of misconduct against Mr. Koskinen are serious,” Goodlatte said at the sparsely attended hearing that lasted over three hours. “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 and were not complied with. Mr. Koskinen provided misleading testimony before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee concerning IRS efforts to provide information to Congress.”

But ranking member John Conyers, D-Mich., called the “attempt to impeach without due process highly misguided,” saying historically such actions have been rare and would provide the accused with counsel and a right to challenge evidence. He cited a letter to Goodlatte released Tuesday from 32 Democrats, saying, “The fundamental problem with this accusation is that there is no evidence to support it,” given the conclusions reached by the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration and the Senate Finance Committee. “Any partisan attacked cloaked in the impeachment process is doomed to fail,” Conyers said.

Koskinen said he “deeply” regretted that the IRS had not brought the three-year-old controversy over alleged anti-conservative bias “to a close in a way that satisfies all Americans and members of Congress. I understand the level of suspicion and distrust caused by the IRS’ failure to properly handle applications for social welfare status based solely on the names of the organizations,” he said.

“I accept that it is up to you to judge my overall record, but I believe that impeachment would be improper,” he testified. “It would create disincentives for many good people to serve. And it would slow the pace of reform and progress at the IRS.”

Pressed by Goodlatte on whether it was the IRS leader’s responsibility to make an effort to find missing emails from Lois Lerner (the former head of the IRS’ Exempt Organizations unit at the center of the controversy), Koskinen agreed. But he noted that other managers were involved, even though he is responsible as the agency’s CEO.

“I responded honestly and in good faith as events unfolded, particularly in response to the discovery that Lois Lerner’s hard drive had crashed in 2011,” Koskinen said. “I directed IRS staff to cooperate fully with Congress and to recover lost information where possible, and I testified to the best of my knowledge. But the truth is that we did not succeed in preserving all of the information requested and some of my testimony later proved mistaken. I regret both of those failings. I can also tell you that, with the benefit of hindsight, even closer communication with Congress would have been advisable.”

Republicans confronted the IRS chief about why he waited four months to notify Congress that two technicians in Martinsburg, W. Va., had destroyed backup tapes containing Lerner emails as part of routine maintenance when Congress had subpoenaed the emails. “I met with senior managers and was assured [the preservation order] was being done,” Koskinen said. “I assumed everyone understood the importance, but apparently it didn’t get to two on the midnight shift in Martinsburg,”

The inspector general later determined that the destruction of the tapes was not a purposeful cover-up. “I don’t think the mistakes of two employees are grounds either for impeachment or resignation,” Koskinen said. If that happens every time someone makes a mistake, “we’re not doing to have many heads of agencies.”

But when pressed by Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., about his categorical statements under oath saying that the IRS had turned over all emails related to Lois Lerner, Koskinen admitted that “it would have been better to say ‘to the best of my knowledge.’ If I knew then what I know now, I would have.”

Oversight Committee chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah., blasted Koskinen for “false testimony when you said every email was preserved and nothing was lost or destroyed. The IRS issues 60,000 subpoenas a year,” he added. “You can dish it out, but you can’t take it.”

Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, pressed Koskinen to resign, citing other agency heads who left after a debacle -- Federal Emergency Management Agency chief Michael Brown, Office of Personnel Management Director Katherine Archuleta and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives director Kenneth Melson.

Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas, told the commissioner that impeachment of a sub-Cabinet member is in “Congress’ bag of tricks. The reason we’re bringing it out is that the Justice Department and the Obama administration are refusing to cooperate with Congress.”

Democrats responded by invoking other pressing issues they said Congress should be addressing. This hearing is “a misnamed farce,” said Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., citing the unresolved funding to combat the Zika virus and stalled appropriations bills. “We have only three or four working days left,” he noted, before lawmakers “go home and get reelected to do nothing.”

Candy props were brought out by Rep. Luis Guitierrez, D-Ill., who said, “Wait a minute while I eat these Skittles," a reference to a recent comment by Donald Trump Jr. likening Syrian refugees to poisoned candy. Other Democrats posed pointed questions to the commissioner about Republican candidate Donald Trump’s issues with his foundation expenditures and failure to release his tax returns.

The IRS is an agency Republicans’ constituents hate, and becomes a symbol to discredit government in general, Democrats argued. Last week, said their letter, Republican Rep. John Fleming, R-La., used accusations that emails were erased as part of a campaign ad for his Senate race: It said: “The head of the IRS ordered 24,000 emails erased before Congress could review them, making sure the American people will never know the real truth.”

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