Politics & Policy

Impeach John Koskinen

Koskinen testifies on Capitol Hill, March 26, 2014. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

Jason Chaffetz wants to impeach IRS Commissioner John Koskinen. Orrin Hatch doesn’t want him to. Chaffetz is in the right this time.

Koskinen is not the central figure in the IRS scandal, which found the federal tax agency being used to harass and bully conservative organizations in the run-up to the 2012 election. But he is a culpable figure. Specifically, it was under his watch that hundreds of backup tapes containing tens of thousands of e-mails — e-mails that were under congressional subpoena — were illegally destroyed, inhibiting investigation into the agency’s wrongdoing.

The intentional destruction of evidence under subpoena is a crime, and a serious one. The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee has voted 23–15 for a bill that would officially censure Koskinen, who was IRS commissioner when that evidence was illegally destroyed, and demand his resignation or removal, as well as the forfeiture of his pension. Representative Chaffetz has made it clear that if removing Koskinen requires impeaching him, then that is what Republicans will pursue. Indeed, the House Judiciary Committee already is considering impeachment.

We would do well to remember just how outrageous the IRS’s actions in this matter were. Conservative organizations, particularly those with tea-party leanings, were singled out by the IRS and subjected to an extraordinary degree of scrutiny on everything from the political ambitions of their donors (and their donors’ family members) to — hard as it is to believe — the contents of their prayers. IRS officials misled and stonewalled Congress and federal investigators. This harassment happened after Democratic grandees including Chuck Schumer and Max Baucus demanded that the IRS investigate tea-party organizations and other entities on the Democrats’ enemies list. It was a pure political witch hunt and a gross, criminal misuse of one of the federal government’s most fearsome agencies.

POLL: Should IRS Commissioner John Koskinen Be Impeached?

The IRS’s strategy was the stuff of banana republics: Organizations that were critical of the president’s signature health-care law were to be targeted, as were those making statements critical of the general direction of government under the Obama administration. Those with “tea party” or “9/12” in their names (the latter refers to groups associated with conservative broadcaster Glenn Beck) were to be targeted. Hundreds of such organizations were subjected to improper harassment and invasive requests for financial and political information.

At the same time this information was being demanded, the IRS was improperly and illegally leaking confidential tax information about conservative groups, most prominently the National Organization for Marriage (NOM), in order to facilitate retribution against donors and supporters. The IRS later was forced to pay a settlement to NOM in the case, but the damage was done.

#share#High-ranking IRS officials were aware of the targeting, and not only took no action to stop it but went to some length to cover up their wrongdoing. Hard drives mysteriously crashed, computers went missing or were destroyed, BlackBerrys were dismantled. More than a dozen IRS officials under investigation experienced inexplicable technical problems that destroyed evidence sought by investigators. The backup tapes were the final hope for getting real answers on what ABC’s Terry Moran, not exactly a card-carrying member of the vast right-wing conspiracy, called “a truly Nixonian abuse of power by the Obama administration.”

John Koskinen was not commissioner for all of that time. But he was commissioner at the critical moment when the tapes were destroyed.

A weaponized IRS put to partisan political ends constitutes an unbearable assault on American democracy.

Under President Obama’s watch, the Justice Department has done almost nothing to pursue this matter, even going so far as to refuse to seek to recover evidence that is “too hard” to get at, deep in the bowels of the federal electronic archives. That leaves Congress, which has at its disposal only a few tools.

Impeachment rarely is the right answer to such a dispute, but in this case it is — since prison isn’t a practical option.

Senator Orrin Hatch, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, has made it known that he does not support impeaching Commissioner Koskinen, owing to the difficulty in winning the two-thirds Senate supermajority required for conviction and to his doubt as to whether Koskinen has committed “an impeachable offense,” and that presents a barrier to action. But he is wrong and should relent: A weaponized IRS put to partisan political ends constitutes an unbearable assault on American democracy and undermines the very institutions of government itself. It cannot be allowed to go unanswered.

John Koskinen has got to go, voluntarily or not.


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