House Oversight Republicans Blast IRS Chief Counsel

House Oversight Committee Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif. House Oversight Committee Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif. J. Scott Applewhite/AP

The quiet but continuing House Republican-led probe of the Internal Revenue Service’s treatment of tea party groups produced a new wrinkle in late November with an intivation to William Wilkins, the agency’s chief counsel and President Obama’s appointee, to “amend” testimony he gave the panel on Nov. 6 that the lawmakers suggest was deceptive.

Reps. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which with the Ways and Means panel has been investigating the IRS since May, sent a letter to Wilkins dated Nov. 26 saying that despite “the fact that you had over five months to prepare yourself, your cooperation with the committee’s investigation was lacking.”

Wilkins, whom the IRS volunteered for testimony back on Aug. 2 and who spoke to Issa staffers in private early last month, used the phrase “I don’t recall” a “staggering 80 times in full or partial response to the committee’s questions,” said the letter, co-signed by Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio. “Your memory consistently failed when you were asked about information you shared with the Treasury Department,” it said. The testimony “suggests either a deliberate attempt to obfuscate your involvment in this matter or gross incompetence on your part.”

Issa blasted Wilkins’ statements that he was unaware of the mishandling of nonprofit groups’ applications for tax-exempt status primarily by a unit in Cincinnati until he read the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration’s audit exposing the problem last May. In Issa’s account, the chief counsel said he was unfamiliar with any of the guidance or politically sensitive terminology that IRS processers were using to determine whether a given applicant was more a political group or a social welfare group.

And Issa also used the letter, which includes partial quotations from Wilkins’ testimony, to repeat his earlier suggestion of likely coordination between the IRS’ now-controversial application-processing operation and the Treasury Department, and perhaps even the White House.

“Treatment of tea party groups was a serious matter worthy of the attention of all IRS leadership, including yourself,” Issa wrote in paraphrasing the chief counsel. “Yet, despite the seriousness of the allegations, which cut to the core of the integrity of the IRS as a fair and impartial arbiter of tax law, you consistently testified that you did not recall raising this as a serious matter with the Treasury Department.”

Wilkins’ relationship with his nominal superior at Treasury, chief counsel Christopher Meade, also prompted skepticism from the Republicans, who noted that Wilkins “became offended” by the implication that hes kept any matter from Meade. “You claim to have good open realtionship with Meade,” Issa wrote, but the failure to recall details “suggests either that you were grossly incompetent informing your superiors about a matter of immense importance to the IRS’ integrity or that you deliberately misled the committee with your testimony.”

Democrats on the panel, copied on the letter, rejected its premise and called Issa’s tactics reckless.

“The problem with any investigation that relies on leaking cherry-picked transcript excerpts is that it is bound to tell only part of the story,” the committee’s ranking member, Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., said in a statement to Government Executive. “In this case, after an exhaustive investigation, there is zero evidence to support Republican claims that the White House directed the IRS to target tea party groups for political reasons. Mr. Wilkins has been consistent that he was not aware of how the IRS handled tea party applications for tax-exempt status until he read the inspector general’s report in 2013, but Chairman Issa's letter omits the fact that all of the other witnesses interviewed by the committee who have information on this issue corroborated his account.”

Cummings, who called for a focus on clarifying the area of the law that caused the controversy, released his own portions of the Wilkins transcript, including quotations showing Wilkins being critical of the IRS staff for considering applicants’ rhetorical names rather than their activities as the basis for judging the extent of their political activity.

The reason Wilkins didn’t intervene after learning of the mishandled process, the chief counsel said, is that the Exempt Organizations Division and then-acting Internal Revenue Commissioner Steven T. Miller “were taking steps. I did not feel that they lacked, you know, the legal knowledge on what the rules were. And if they needed legal advice they would have gone to someone who was more of a technical specialist in the area than me.”

Issa and Jordan gave Wilkins until Dec. 10 to come into the committee office to amend his testiomny.

An IRS spokesman on Monday said the letter is currently being reviewed.

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