Reps. Jim Jordan (left) and Jason Chaffetz wrote a June 5 letter to the head of the IRS with a dozen questions about the team.

Reps. Jim Jordan (left) and Jason Chaffetz wrote a June 5 letter to the head of the IRS with a dozen questions about the team. J. Scott Applewhite/AP

GOP Lawmakers Seek Details on IRS 'Team' Whose Existence May Be Semantic

Chaffetz and Jordan say FOIA officer testimony holds key to delayed Lois Lerner documents.

Leaders on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee seized on recently compelled testimony from an Internal Revenue Service documents officer to demand details on a “special project team” the tax agency set up to respond to document demands of six active investigations into its alleged political targeting.

In a June 5 letter to Internal Revenue Commissioner John Koskinen, Reps. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, and Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, posed a dozen questions about a team “established outside the normal agency process” to respond to queries from Congress, the Justice Department and citizens using the Freedom of Information Act concerning the mishandling of applications from largely conservative nonprofits seeking tax-exempt status managed by retired IRS executive Lois Lerner.

Chairman Chaffetz is fresh off a pair of hearings on governmentwide problems responding to a surge of FOIA requests, which included testimony—compelled by subpoena from Mary Howard, director of the Privacy, Governmental Liaison and Disclosure unit at the IRS.

The lawmakers, concerned not just about Lerner’s role in the two-year-old controversy but also whether the White House coordinated with the IRS on delaying the release of documents, said in a statement that “the existence of the ‘special project team’ was revealed earlier this week in testimony to the committee” from Howard.

 “Ms. Howard’s testimony could explain the interminable delays related to the IRS’s responses to the Lerner requests,” the lawmakers wrote. “In fact, the committee has been waiting to receive all of Ms. Lerner’s emails for more than two years…. It is just now coming to light that the IRS Privacy, Governmental Liaison and Disclosure team was stripped of its ordinary responsibility to respond to the Lerner requests.” 

The lawmakers also challenged Howard’s statement in her testimony that the FOIA staff and disclosure office “never shared information with the White house,” calling that a contradiction of the “administration’s stated policy” and the practices of other FOIA officers testifying at the June 3 hearing.

But the IRS, which is preparing a formal response as it does with all congressional inquiries, does not see Howard’s “revelation” as anything new. The “special project team,” a spokesman told Government Executive, was simply informal phraseology for the staff of some 250 employees, mostly lawyers, that for two years has been tasked with reviewing and redacting Lerner-related documents to be turned over to four congressional committees, the Justice Department and the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration.

That effort was described to Congress publicly as early as September 2014, and, as Howard said last week, “more than 250 IRS employees have spent more than 160,000 hours working directly on complying with the investigations, at a cost of approximately $20 million, which also includes the cost of adding capacity to our limited information technology systems to accommodate the voluminous information requests. To date, the IRS has produced to Congress more than 1 million pages of documents related to the investigations.”

The delays in processing FOIA requests from the public, Howard said, were caused in part by top management’s decision to prioritize responses to Congress’s Lerner probes, documents from which were then made available to FOIA requesters.

The House members’ letter asked that Koskinen, by June 16, explain how the agency’s process for handling the congressional requests differed from the normal process; identify those responsible for the decision to create the special project team, cite any predecessors; and detail when it was created and “disbanded,” and its membership. They also asked whether the Privacy, Governmental Liaison and Disclosure section was involved in responding to the Lerner requests, and “if not, why not?” And they asked whether the IRS sent documents responsive to congressional or FOIA requests to the White House for review?  “If so, please identify which,” Chaffetz and Jordan wrote.