Treasury secretary Jack Lew on Sunday got specific about President Obama’s contention that “phony scandals” are distracting lawmakers from tackling the important issues facing the country. With regard to the IRS’s targeting of tea-party groups, Lew said, there is “no evidence” that any political appointee was involved in the matter, and “The attempt to try to keep finding that evidence is creating the kind of sense of a phony scandal that was being referred to there.” “We have to distinguish reality from the part that is phony,” Lew told NBC’s David Gregory. He went on to try to do so.
“The attempts to keep finding that evidence” are presumably those being made by congressional investigators in both the House and the Senate. Though he didn’t say it outright, Lew suggested that the investigations should come to an end: “There was a problem, the problem has been addressed, and there was no political involvement that there is any evidence of,” he told Fox News’ Chris Wallace. The treasury secretary went on to say, ”There were a number of supervisors, all career, who exercised bad judgment, who were relieved of their responsibilities.” That’s technically true: Lois Lerner, Holly Paz, Joseph Grant, and others are no longer serving in their previous capacities at IRS headquarters. Last we knew, Lerner and Paz were placed on paid administrative leave, and Grant retired. But lawmakers haven’t yet been able to get an answer about whether they are still getting paid, for example, or whether they received performance bonuses.
Though Lew was certain at points that we’ve gotten to the bottom of this scandal, he’s actually not so sure whether any political appointees were involved. Pressed by Chris Wallace, he conceded that neither he nor anybody at the Treasury Department has asked whether William Wilkins, the IRS’s chief counsel, played a role in the targeting of conservative groups. (Recall that President Obama charged Lew with investigating the scandal.) Lew insisted that he is ”leaving the investigation to the proper people who do investigations” because, “I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to do the investigations.” Nonetheless, he reiterated that there is “no political official who condoned or authorized it.”
Finally, Lew repeated the claim that both conservative and liberal groups were targeted. ”There was equal opportunity bad judgment,” he said. ”It was conservative groups, it was progressive groups.” The inspector general has debunked this assertion several times, most notably in a letter to Ways and Means Committee ranking member Sander Levin. Of the 298 applications scrutinized for political involvement between May 2010 and May 2012, 96 included “Tea Party,” “9/12,” or “Patriots” in their names. Others contained terms like “liberty,” “freedom,” and “make America a better place to live.” Six included the terms “Progress” or “Progressive” in their names. Zero included the term “Occupy.” And while 30 percent of progressive cases were deemed “political,” every tea-party case received the designation, and the subsequent scrutiny.
That is what the treasury secretary considers equal opportunity, it appears.