The inspector general who in May exposed the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of tea-party groups last week found himself, in a bizarre twist, defending his integrity before Congress.
“They don’t know I was a page at the 1980 Democratic National Convention,” J. Russell George said in an unusually emotional moment at the latest committee hearing on the targeting scandal. “They” are House Democrats who, for almost a month, have accused George of manufacturing the scandal to score political points. “They don’t know that I was a founder of the Howard University College Democrats,” the soft-spoken IG said in an effort to demonstrate his impartiality. “Yes, you know, I saw the light and joined Bob Dole’s staff during college,” he admitted, but insisted he has never allowed “personal or political views to affect decisions.”
Democrats in Congress are suggesting otherwise, and the assault on George is the latest chapter in a scandal whose investigation has become a bitter political battleground. When IRS officials fingered a couple of rogue agents as the culprits of the political discrimination, Democrats and Republicans alike issued their condemnations. But as congressional investigators have traced culpability to senior levels of the agency — last week, to the former head of the IRS’s Exempt Organizations Unit, Lois Lerner, one of her senior advisers, and lawyers in the chief counsel’s office — Democrats have increasingly turned their ire away from the tax-collection agency and toward the IG.
George, who previously served as a staffer in the White House and on the House Oversight Committee, is acutely aware that some grief comes with the territory. “When I was doing my due diligence, sir, by talking to some of the first IGs, you know, who were appointed by Jimmy Carter and then later fired by Ronald Reagan,” he told Congress last week, “they said to me, do not take this job. They say, if you’re perceived to be too aggressive, the administration is angry at you; if you’re perceived to be not aggressive enough, Congress is angry at you.”
The Harvard Law graduate has received praise for his doggedness in a relatively thankless post. “Frankly, we can’t keep up with J. Russell George,” wrote Accounting Today, which included him on its list of “Top 100 People” in 2011 and 2012. “His IRS watchdog’s countless carefully analyzed reports and recommendations delve into every aspect of the tax agency’s operations — even to the point of recently analyzing the effectiveness of the other IRS watchdog, the Taxpayer Advocate.” George’s investigations, for example, turned up evidence that nearly 50,000 prison inmates claimed tax refunds in 2010, though they reported no wage information, and that foreign workers, many of them illegal immigrants, had improperly claimed nearly $7 billion in child tax credits between 2004 and 2007.
Democrats are not happy with the results of George’s latest probe. Led by Michigan’s Sander Levin and Maryland’s Elijah Cummings, and assisted by the IRS’s acting administrator, Danny Werfel, whom President Obama appointed to clean up the agency in the wake of the targeting scandal, Democrats have accused George of concealing evidence that the IRS targeted liberal groups along with conservative ones. First came Werfel’s announcement last month that the targeting was broader than initially disclosed. Then came Levin’s release of 14 “Be On the Lookout” lists that included the term “Progressive,” which he cited as definitive proof that George’s report and the congressional investigations it spurred are grievously flawed. Enter Cummings, who earlier this month released IRS training materials instructing agents to scrutinize the applications of both liberal and conservative organizations and a February 2012 BOLO list flagging groups affiliated with the Occupy Wall Street movement. “It is unclear why Mr. George did not disclose that IRS employees added a new BOLO entry for Occupy groups in 2012,” Cummings said, arguing that it raises “serious questions” about his initial report.