IRS chief knew tea party groups targeted in 2012

Key IRS official won’t testify

A key figure in the Internal Revenue Service controversy plans to invoke her constitutional right not to testify at a congressional hearing today.

Lois Lerner is the director of the IRS division that handles applications for tax-exempt status. That division was responsible for giving extra scrutiny to tea party and other conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status.

In a letter addressed to House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, Lerner’s lawyer says his client has “not committed any crime or made any misrepresentation but under the circumstances she has no choice but to take this course.” He cites an ongoing Justice Department investigation.

Associated Press

The former head of the Internal Revenue Service said he first learned in the spring of 2012 — in the heat of the presidential campaign — that agents had improperly targeted political groups that vehemently opposed President Barack Obama’s policies.

But, former Commissioner Douglas Shulman said Tuesday, he didn’t tell higher-ups in the Treasury Department and he didn’t tell members of Congress.

And he wouldn’t apologize for it.

“I had a partial set of facts, and I knew that the inspector general was going to be looking into it, and I knew that it was being stopped,” Shulman told the Senate Finance Committee in his first public comments on the matter. “Sitting there then and sitting here today, I think I made the right decision, which is to let the inspector general get to the bottom of it, chase down all the facts and then make his findings public.”

Shulman, who was appointed by President George W. Bush, left the IRS in November when his five-year term ended. His testimony makes him the top official to publicly acknowledge knowing before the presidential election that tea party groups had been targeted.

Even so, senators from both political parties said they were skeptical of the version of events portrayed by Shulman and Steven Miller, the man who later took his place as acting commissioner and was forced last week to resign.

For more than 18 months during the 2010 and 2012 election campaigns, IRS agents in a Cincinnati office singled out tea party and other conservative groups for additional scrutiny when they applied for tax-exempt status. They asked who the groups’ donors were and the political affiliations of officers.

The additional scrutiny delayed applications for an average of nearly two years, making it difficult for many of the groups to raise money, according to a report by J. Russell George, the Treasury Department inspector general for tax administration.

George’s report blamed ineffective management in Washington for allowing the practice to continue for so long. But George said he found no evidence that Washington directed the targeting.

The committee’s Democratic chairman was less than pleased with the day’s testimony.

“I found it unsatisfying,” Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., said after the hearing. “I think a lot of information’s not getting out, a lot of questions not answered.”

Shulman said he was briefed by Miller “sometime in the spring of 2012” that tea party groups were being singled out for additional scrutiny. But Shulman said he didn’t realize the scope of the issue until the inspector general issued his report last week.

Shulman is now a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.

Several Republican senators said it was hard to believe that Shulman could learn such a sensitive piece of information in the middle of a presidential election and not share it with Treasury officials. The IRS is an independent agency within the Treasury Department.

“It’s just implausible to me,” Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said in an interview after the hearing. “Bureaucrats don’t take risks by doing things that they know will get them fired, or get them disciplined by their superiors.”

Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., said, “It’s just hard to figure that there isn’t more to this than they are letting on.”

“How much did the political calendar influence when they disclosed this?” Thune said. “Obviously it was a presidential election year. Disclosure of something like this would have been explosive.”