Behind the scenes and nearly six months after the scandal first made headlines, the House Oversight Committee is quietly continuing its investigation of the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of tea-party groups. Since May, congressional investigators have interviewed over 30 witnesses and examined thousands of pages of documents.
The latest official called to testify before committee investigators is an important one: IRS chief counsel William Wilkins. Wilkins is one of just two political appointees at the IRS, a generous donor to Democratic candidates and causes, and once represented Jeremiah Wright’s Trinity United Church of Christ. Evidence of his involvement in the targeting would spell trouble for the White House and bring renewed focus to a scandal that has largely receded from public consciousness.
The Oversight Committee has furnished none, to date, but it is expressing gross dissatisfaction with Wilkins’s testimony and, in a letter sent to him on Wednesday, offering him the opportunity to amend it. “In your testimony, you stated ‘I don’t recall’ a staggering 80 times in full or partial response to the Committee’s questions,” committee chairman Darrell Issa and Ohio representative Jim Jordan wrote. “Your failure to recollect important aspects of the Committee’s investigation suggests either a deliberate attempt to obfuscate your involvement in this matter or gross incompetence on your part.”
The most pertinent subject on which Wilkins’s memory failed him was the nature of his communications with Treasury Department officials: in particular, whether he discussed the applications of tea-party groups with anybody at the Treasury Department, whether he discussed with Treasury Department officials regulatory guidance for 501(c)(4) entities engaged in political activities, and whether he discussed with them the inspector general’s report that blew the lid off of the targeting scandal in mid May.
In the summer of 2011, former IRS official Lois Lerner and her senior adviser sought guidance from lawyers in Wilkins’s office on the processing of two “test” applications from conservative groups, whose treatment was intended to guide how Cincinnati agents would process the bulk of the tea-party cases. Wilkins told the committee he was unaware of their involvement in the issue but did know about the draft guidance on the treatment of tea-party applications that, on April 25, 2012, emerged from Lerner’s meetings with lawyers reporting to him. (The guidance was never finalized.)
Wilkins met with President Obama on April 23, two days before the guidance was provided. Whether he had a hand in drafting those rudimentary guidelines that emerged in April 2012 or whether he tipped off his superiors at the Treasury Department to what was going on, we do not know.