J. Russell George paused for just a moment before he took his seat at the witness table. He wanted to take it all in. The Treasury inspector general whose audit of the IRS had set off a national firestorm had been in this very room before—three decades earlier.
That was back when George was a precocious teenager who had worked his way onto the staff of then-Sen. Bob Dole, the powerful Republican chairman of the vaunted Finance Committee. Then, he’d sorted mail and made carbon copies. Now, he was about to testify before the same panel, to present the findings of an explosive audit that found wayward tax agents who had targeted conservative groups for extra scrutiny.
“I could never have dreamed [about this] as a 17, 18-year-old,” George said in a wide-ranging interview with National Journal, one of his first since the audit. “It’s kind of moving for me in that regard.”
Two heads have already rolled in the scandal. One of them, the outgoing acting commissioner of the IRS, Steven Miller, was seated next to George. Pictures of the two of them, their right hands raised, taking the oath, ran in papers across the nation after the scandal’s first congressional hearing last week.
All the attention was new, but George has operated in these halls of power his entire career. He worked for Dole, and then in President George H.W. Bush’s White House. In between, he attended Harvard Law School, graduating in 1988 alongside a young Michelle Obama (then Michelle Robinson).
They weren’t in the same section—the academic groupings that Harvard uses to divide its students—but George said they traveled in some of the same social circles, including the Black Law Students Association.
“I think he actually dated Michelle at one point,” said former Rep. Tom Davis, a Virginia Republican, who worked with George when he was staff director for a House oversight subcommittee in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
“That is overstating it,” George said. But the two students did socialize in group settings. “Michelle was a lovely person, and down to earth,” he said. “…The BLSA went out for pizza; we would go out together.”
He paused, for a beat. “Don’t get me in trouble,” George said.
George, 49, has been a lot better at finding success than trouble throughout his career. He grew up in New York City, where his father worked for the transit authority and his mother was a secretary. At the age of 10, he was publishing a neighborhood paper, according to a congressional good-bye speech his old boss, former Rep. Steve Horn, R-Calif., gave in 2002.
From an early age, George was fascinated by celebrities. He’d line up outside the stage door of the biggest shows on Broadway to collect stars’ autographs, “Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton …” he said, fondly, “I could go on and on.”
He moved to Washington to study at Howard University, the historically black college, but his fascination—he calls it a “hobby”—with fame followed. And in Washington, the famous were on Capitol Hill. So he decamped to the corridors outside the Senate clutching a piece of cardboard, “with my goal to get every member of the U.S. Senate to sign a single placard,” he said.
That’s where he met Bob Dole. “Who are you missing?” Dole asked George, after scribbling his name. Dole then “went into the Senate chamber and started bringing out, one by one, all these great lions of the Senate,” George recalled. Lions like Ted Kennedy, who would add his name to the signatures of Jesse Helms and Barry Goldwater.
George called Dole the next day to ask for a job. Dole’s staffer asked what party he was with. “I’m 17,” George said. “I’m not registered as anything.” They said he could come in once a week, unpaid. Soon enough, though, he had a full-time job.
Two of the senators whom George would have stalked in the halls in the early 1980s (although they likely weren’t high on his star list then) were among his inquisitors on Tuesday: Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., and Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, the panel’s top Republican.
George, a recent board member of Washington’s tony University Club who can now count himself among the political celebrities he once pursued, can’t remember if he got their signatures. The placard is “at my parent’s house in New York,” he said, likely accumulating dust. “I don’t think I got all 100, because some of them snuck out the side door.”
After Harvard Law, George had a brief stint as a New York prosecutor, before returning to Washington to work for President George H.W. Bush, as a lawyer in the budget office, then as associate director for policy in the Office of National Service. The Clinton era ushered him back to New York, into private practice.
In 1995, with Republicans in control of the House and Speaker Newt Gingrich ascendant, George returned to Washington as chief counsel of a House oversight subcommittee, where he stayed until 2002. There, he won plaudits for his impartiality from both sides of the aisle.
“Russell was a straight-shooter,” said Phil Barnett, then chief counsel to Rep. Henry Waxman of California, who was the top Democrat on the House oversight panel at the time.
“You can take what he does from an objectivity point of view to the bank,” said Davis, the former GOP House member. He said George has the perfect temperament for the current IRS maelstrom. “You couldn’t ask for a more fair umpire in this,” Davis said, “He’s not a fiery Republican type, but obviously he’s not beholden to the administration.”
The second President Bush tapped George for an inspector general role in 2002 (Dole administered the oath to George) and then his current post in 2004. At his confirmation hearing, then-Sen. John Sununu, R-N.H., introduced George as a “good friend.” “Credibility, integrity, and competence, those are among the very first words that come to mind,” he said.
With his rounded features, baritone voice and thin-rimmed glasses that rest low on his nose, George has emerged from the witness table unscathed. Of course, it helps that the toughest, most outraged questions aren’t slung his way but at the IRS officials who oversaw the agency as the targeting occurred.
Also working in George’s favor: Some of his congressional questioners know him from his staffer days. George ticked off the names: Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Rep. Tim Griffin, R-Ark., among them. Count Joe Scarbough, the host of MSNBC’s Morning Joe, as among those who worked with George in the House, too.
It probably doesn’t hurt that the communications director at George’s side, Karen Kraushaar, has weathered a Washington scandal storm herself. In 2011, Kraushaar was one of the first women to be named publicly after accusing GOP then-presidential candidate Herman Cain of sexual harassment.
“Truth-telling requires strength of character," said Kraushaar, who has worked for the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration' Office since 2010.
As tax-administration inspector general, George manages a staff of nearly 800 employees charged with monitoring the IRS. He counts the audit his team produced as among his biggest achievements in nearly two decades as a federal government watchdog.
“Americans need to have trust that the agency, which has so much of their personal information—and has an ability to affect their lives in so many different ways—is operated with the highest degree of integrity,” George said.
In the last week, George has testified before three different congressional committees. That’s likely just the start. At Tuesday’s Finance hearing, he suggested that his office was undertaking a review of nonprofits—known as 501(c)(4)s—that have played in the electoral arena, an issue that Democrats have cried out to be addressed.
In the interview, George wouldn’t address that, specifically, but he said, “As a result of the work that was conducted in preparation of this audit, we have uncovered areas that need further review.”
Or, as he told senators Tuesday, “Suffice it to say, this matter is not over.”