Finally, we may be getting somewhere in the IRS scandal involving the targeting and harassment of tea-party groups applying for tax exemptions. At Thursday’s House Government Reform and Oversight hearing, some names were at last attached to some of the IRS’s most questionable actions in the scandal.
Back in May, top IRS officials Steven Miller and Lois Lerner insisted that “rogue” agents in the Cincinnati office acted without direction from IRS headquarters in Washington. But Elizabeth Hofacre, who was the Cincinnati agent in charge of reviewing flagged tea-party applications, says she “had no autonomy or authority” to act on applications and so she simply sat on them. She blamed Carter Hull, an IRS lawyer in Washington, for the delays, saying that he directed her in how to treat problem cases but never gave her any feedback.
For his part, Hull said he had tried to tackle the growing pile of applications, but he was told they must first go through a multi-tier review that involved Lerner’s office and that of William Wilkins, the IRS’s chief counsel. Wilkins, a political appointee of President Obama’s, has been involved in Democratic politics as a staffer and campaign donor for over 30 years. Wilkins’s office did not have its first meeting with IRS officials on the tea-party applications until August 2011; at that point the applications had been pending for so long that it was decided that the IRS needed to demand updated information from the tea-party groups, further slowing down the process. Hull says that the behavior of IRS management during this whole process was “unusual.”
It’s taken nearly three months to begin to peel back the onion and discover the chain of command in the IRS scandal. One of the bureaucracy’s biggest weapons against scrutiny and accountability is its ability to hide who actually makes decisions and who should be held responsible for them. Back in May, former IRS commissioner Douglas Shulman didn’t even pretend to know how the scandal had happened. Senate Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus, a Democrat, asked him, “What caused that culture to develop, and what did you do about correcting that culture?” Shulman responded: “Mr. Chairman, I can’t say I know that answer.”
Similarly, acting IRS commissioner Steven Miller was asked by Representative Kevin Brady, a Texas Republican: “Who is responsible for targeting these individuals?” Miller responded: “I don’t have names for you.”
Later, he acknowledged that senior technical adviser Nancy Marks had identified someone as responsible for the targeting policy. When asked who it was, he repeated his mantra of the day: “I don’t remember.”
It’s an old tactic in Washington to attempt to “move on” from instances of bureaucratic abuse without assigning blame. J. Russell George, the IRS’s inspector general, revealed to Congress that a government official had recent “willful unauthorized access” to private tax documents. His office presented the evidence to the Department of Justice, but “the case was declined for prosecution.” George thought three other cases involving the access of tax documents involved “inadvertent” behavior, but it appears Justice didn’t do much checking on its own and declined to prosecute any of them.
Iowa senator Chuck Grassley, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, wrote Attorney General Eric Holder this month demanding answers. “The public needs to know whether the decision not to prosecute these individuals was politically motivated and whether the individuals were held accountable in any other way,” he wrote. Grassley said the IRS scandal may be expanding: Inspector General George recently told him his office is now investigating two cases in which the IRS may have targeted political candidates for an audit.