The congressional investigation into the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of tea-party groups inched closer to the White House yesterday as testimony from three IRS attorneys indicated lawyers in the agency’s chief counsel’s office were involved in reviewing the applications of tea-party groups for tax exemption. The office is led by William Wilkins, one of two IRS officials appointed by President Obama.
A source tells National Review Online that Judith Kindell, a senior adviser to Lois Lerner, also held up the processing of tea-party cases by demanding to review them herself. Lerner, who has become emblematic of the scandal that continues to roil the tax-collection agency, is the embattled former director of the IRS’s Exempt Organizations division who remains on paid administrative leave, refusing to testify about the targeting unless lawmakers grant her blanket immunity.
Wilkins, who, according to the IRS, heads an office of 1,600 attorneys, has been involved in Democratic politics for over three decades. He joined the Democratic staff on the Senate Finance Committee in 1981 and became the committee’s staff director and chief counsel in 1987, before going on to a career in private practice at the white-shoe law firm WilmerHale. There, he defended pro bono Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s United Church of Christ when the IRS investigated potential violations of its 501(c)(3) status after then-senator Barack Obama delivered a speech there.
Wilkins has also donated generously to Democratic causes, contributing over $35,000 to Democratic politicians and party affiliates since 1990, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. He has also contributed to Republican politicians, including Iowa’s Chuck Grassley, but not nearly as generously.
His involvement in the targeting of tea-party groups is a matter of dispute. The IRS has denied it, saying in a statement that he is “not involved in the 501(c)(4) application process” and “did not learn about specific groups being singled out by name until earlier this year.” A senior GOP aide, however, tells National Review Online that witnesses interviewed by congressional investigators claim Wilkins became aware of the targeting at some point in 2012. According to White House press secretary Jay Carney, Wilkins informed neither his boss — the Treasury Department’s chief counsel — nor the White House when he learned of it. Whether he personally helped to develop the guidelines for reviewing tea-party applications remains unknown.
In interviews with congressional investigators, three IRS lawyers involved in the processing of tea-party cases — Carter Hull, Ronald Shoemaker, and Michael Seto — said that lawyers in Wilkins’s office, as well as Lerner’s adviser, Kindell, put the applications of conservative groups through a complex, multi-layered review process that delayed their processing. An IRS source says that Kindell is considered the “political guru” in the Exempt Organizations division as well as “the definitive expert” on “political activities in exempt organizations tax law.” She is the author of Revenue Ruling 2007-41, which provides that tax-exempt organizations “may not participate in, or intervene in . . . any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office” and provides several examples of impermissible political activities among exempt organizations.