The tables have turned in the controversy over the IRS's alleged targeting of conservative groups, as today the investigators will become the investigated when the two people most responsible for advancing the scandal narrative will face scrutiny at a hearing on Capitol Hill.
In the two months since the scandal broke in advance of a report from the Treasury Department's inspector general for tax administration, new information has deflated the notion of a White House-driven scheme to harass political enemies, giving Democrats reason to doubt the credibility of that initial report -- and its author, J. Russell George. As Treasury's top internal cop, George is used to asking people uncomfortable questions, but today it will be he who has to defend not only himself, but by extension the foundation of the controversy.
Since the scandal exploded in Washington, we've learned that the IRS flagged for review the application of lots of different kinds of groups, not just conservative ones, and that there's no evidence the White House was involved in the targeting in any way. And last week, Elijah Cummings, the ranking Democrat on Issa’s oversight committee, released even more evidence that seems to undermine the proverbial prosecution's case, as Michael Tomasky notes.
For instance, George apparently failed to disclose the fact that other investigators in his office reviewed 5,500 emails of IRS employees involved and concluded that there was “no indication that pulling these selected applications was politically motivated." Cummings also uncovered evidence that seems to contradict George's claim that the words "progressive" and "Occupy" were either not used or used only historically to flag applications. He found a PowerPoint presentation and another document that show the terms were used as recently as 2010 and 2012, respectively.
Issa's committee has so far conducted 15 interviews with IRS officials connected to processing of Tea Party nonprofit applications -- all said the White House was in no way involved and that there were no political motivations in the targeting. Six said they are Republicans, six said they had no political affiliation and three said they're Democrats. "No, not at all. That’s kind of laughable that people think that," one of the GOP-leaning agents interviewed said when asked about political motivations. "This is purely cases that, unfortunately, Cincinnati didn’t have enough guidance on. That (c)(4) area is a very, very difficult area." (Indeed, Congress forced the IRS to get into this difficult area against its will.)
Emboldened by the new evidence, Democrats are ready to use the hearing today to turn the microscope around on George and Issa. "I have serious doubts about [the inspector general report's] thoroughness, and I have serious doubts as to whether it was indeed comprehensive," Cummings told Sam Stein.
Politico's Rachael Bade and Lauren French preview some questions Democrats are likely to ask. Most important: Why didn't the inspector general report mention the fact that progressive were also flagged for review? Previously, George's office has said that it only investigates what Congress asks it to -- in this case, Issa asked him to investigate targeting of Tea Party groups -- but Democrats are not satisfied with that answer. “It’s sort of a nonsensical explanation because does anyone really believe an inspector general of any agency is limited in the scope of an audit by a member of Congress?” said Gerry Connolly, a Democrat on the Oversight Committee.
And why didn't George's report mention the other TIGTA investigators who examined the 5,500 emails and concluded there was no political motives? Why didn't the report mention lists that targeted liberal and other groups for extra scrutiny?
And perhaps most troubling, why did George personally intervene to stop the release of documents to Congress? Last week, as IRS employees were preparing to turn over another batch of documents to the Oversight Committee, George stopped them, according to Cummings' office. George is expected to cite a law that prevents the disclosure of personal tax information, but the IRS has previously released plenty of documents by merely redacting the names and personal data on them. Democrats wonder if he's covering something up. “Prevent[ing] the disclosure of relevant information that could raise further questions about the reliability of his report and testimony," Cummings said.
Yesterday, acting IRS administrator Danny Werfel confirmed Cummings' account during a hearing on a different matter. Werfel added later that George's move appeared unprecedented. By day’s end on Wednesday, Werfel was able to provide a definitive answer, telling the committee’s Democratic staff that George’s actions were unprecedented. "None of the people we checked with recalled a situation where the inspector general told the IRS that a planned release of information by the IRS would constitute a section 6103 violation after IRS disclosure counsel determined that particular material was releasable to the public or to Congress under section 6103,” he said.
And then there's Darrell Issa. While he'll technically be in charge of the hearing today before his House Oversight Committee, which will feature George and other witnesses, Issa will also be taking the stand, in a way. As the person with perhaps the most to lose from the collapse of the IRS scandal, he'll be playing defense as Democrats seek to tear down his narrative.
It's a familiar place for Issa -- blowing desperately on the last smoldering embers of what once promised to be a towering conflagration of a scandal -- and after overplaying his hand in Fast and Furious, Solyndra, Benghazi and even the Joe Sestak affair, among many others, whatever credibility Issa has left may die with the IRS controversy. (Then again, the media tends to be pretty credulous when it comes to scandals in a president's second term.)
Even the White House is acknowledging that it may have acted prematurely in jumping ahead of the IRS story. “I’ve seen some very interesting stories that cast some light and, I think, might cause everyone here to reflect upon how this was viewed in the immediate aftermath of the breaking of the story,” press secretary Jay Carney said when asked if the president reacted too quickly.
Ahead of the hearings, Republicans are trying to make hay out of the fact that the IRS' chief counsel -- one of only two Obama appointees in the entire agency -- was involved in the targeting of Tea Party groups. But this news feels stale as it seems to have already been asked and answered. The fact that the counsel's office provided guidance and attended a meeting in August 2011 on the rules governing nonprofit applications was included in the inspector general's report, and the IRS said two months ago that the chief counsel himself was not present, only his staffers were (the Office of Chief Counsel employs approximately 1,600 lawyers).