In his third appearance before a House oversight panel this summer, Internal Revenue Commissioner John Koskinen on Wednesday pushed back at Republican lawmakers’ accusations that he has slow-walked the production of requested documents in the year-old probe into the tax agency’s mishandling of applications from conservative nonprofits.
He and Democrats on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee clashed with the chairman on the plausibility of statements that a computer crash destroyed key emails from retired Internal Revenue Service executive Lois Lerner.
They also disagreed on whether an ongoing probe of possible IRS bias and crimes by the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration prevents Koskinen from actively aiding the oversight panel’s demands for interviews with his staff.
Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., said the commissioner had undermined public confidence by failing to alert Congress back in February or March that Lerner’s computer had crashed in 2011. “The cover-up usually occurs during an investigation, but this loss of data came at a time Congress was just beginning to investigate wrongdoing,” he said, citing as a trigger the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision narrowing the reach of campaign finance laws in Citizens United. “It’s clear the president wanted a fix, and a fix had to occur, which led to unfair treatment of conservatives on the eve of an election,” Issa said. “You could have done better and been more forward-leaning and pro-active.”
That brought a stern rebuttal from ranking member Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., who told the IRS chief “he’s becoming collateral damage in a fight for the spotlight between” Issa and Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich. Republicans, he said, are “issuing dueling press releases and cherry-picking data” even though “there is no evidence of White House involvement in the screening.” The documentation that Lerner “tried to remedy the computer crash is apparently irrelevant,” Cummings said. “It’s unseemly and embarrassing.”
Issa protested and demanded that Cummings “erroneous claims” be “taken down,” but an objection was raised.
Koskinen, who was sworn in at IRS in late December, began by responding to Republicans’ assertions that the IRS Exempt Organizations Division was inappropriately coordinating with the Justice Department by saying “we work with Justice’s Criminal Division regularly and routinely. Through these cooperative efforts, we have made significant progress in combatting tax-related crimes,” with prosecutions growing to 4,364 in fiscal 2013, the highest in a decade.
The commissioner also challenged Republican suggestions that he himself was “under investigation” by Justice, saying he never heard from the department, and had merely read Deputy Attorney General James Cole’s statement that his team is “interested” in the fact that Koskinen did not notify Congress of Lerner’s three-year-old computer crash until this June.
“That’s why we have this hearing,” said Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, “because the IRS waited four months to come forward and then it was buried in an enclosure of a June 13 report to tax-writing committees.” Noting it took a subpoena to get IRS attorney and information technology specialist Thomas Kane to talk last week, Jordan interpreted Kane’s testimony as saying the missing Lerner emails are retrievable. “You were never going to tell us ‘til we caught you, and you only came forward when you had to” because of a lawsuit by the conservative nonprofit Judicial Watch, Jordan said.
“Before you make that charge, you better have better evidence,” Koskinen shot back. “If you think you can produce a report in four days, you don’t understand how large organizations work.”
The reason for the four-month delay, Koskinen explained, is that the emails addressing the computer crash had already been included in piles of documents delivered last fall and because “we had planned a public presentation on what we’ve learned of the universe” of what emails are missing. An earlier alert to Congress, he added, “would have triggered a hearing six weeks earlier when we wouldn’t have known what we’re dealing with. We’ve tried to supply as many Lois Lerner emails as possible and to make sure” there aren’t others not located or provided.
The push to redact and deliver documents to Congress has “led to a significant drain on morale at the chief counsel’s office,” Koskinen said. Though his office is “happy to cooperate,” a large number of career professionals are “looking over their shoulders” out of worry that congressional inquisitors will demand that they submit to deposition-like testimony “when they feel like they’re merely doing their jobs in document production.”
Left unresolved by the hearing was the question of whether the existence of an inspector general investigation inhibits an agency’s capacity to talk to Congress or probe for wrongdoing on its own. Koskinen said his “current and future policy” is not to launch a “competing investigation” when the IG had personally asked him not to subject his staffers to multiple interviews until the IG’s work is done.
“There’s nothing talismanic about an IG investigation,” countered Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., “A cynic might think you’re using an IG investigation as an excuse not to cooperate.”
Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., likened the Republicans’ approach to the saying, “The floggings will continue until morale improves.” He repeated earlier charges that the IRS’s IG, J. Russell George, is himself “under a cloud” as a political actor on the conservative side who omitted key information on similar targeting of progressive nonprofits from his key May 2013 audit that triggered the controversy. George, said Connolly, should be investigated and perhaps replaced.
Both Jordan and Cummings called for more information on the role of the IGs, suggesting a possible appearance by TIGTA officials next week.