The war between Oversight Committee chairman Darrell Issa and the committee’s ranking member, Elijah Cummings, rages on.
Issa on Wednesday accused the Maryland Democrat of colluding with the Internal Revenue Service in its targeting of the conservative nonprofit group True the Vote, whose founder, Catherine Engelbrecht, said she received multiple letters from Cummings in 2012 and personal visits from the IRS and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Explosives. Engelbrecht’s True the Vote is one of the many conservative groups that claims to have been improperly targeted by the IRS while it scrutinized the applications of tea-party groups.
In a letter signed by his five subcommittee chairmen, Issa raised the possibility that Cummings coordinated with the IRS, “surreptitiously” contacting the agency to request information about True the Vote.
E-mails unearthed in the course of Issa’s investigation into the IRS’s inappropriate targeting of right-leaning groups show that in January 2013, a member of Cummings’s staff contacted the IRS asking for any publicly available information on True the Vote. The matter was discussed by IRS officials that included Lois Lerner, the former exempt-organizations chief who retired in the wake of the targeting scandal. One of Lerner’s deputies, Holly Paz, subsequently sent the organization’s 990 forms to Cummings and his staff — not an illegal disclosure of taxpayer information, though sources say the exchange of such information was not routine.
The correspondence does not indicate whether the IRS’ scrutiny of True the Vote’s application for tax exemption was prompted by Cummings’s inquiries about the group and the timing of the correspondence suggests it was not, but instead that Cummings may have modeled his inquiries on those the IRS had already made.
In February 2012, Engelbrecht’s True the Vote received a letter from the IRS requesting more information about the group; one of Cummings’s letters, which Engelbrecht received in October 2012, contained questions that closely mirrored those posed by the IRS. Issa details them in his letter, strongly implying that Cummings based his letter on the one Engelbrecht had already received from the agency: Both requested information about the software True the Vote was using for voter registration, about the process the group used to train its employees, and about the vendors it used to obtain voter lists.
True the Vote’s lawyer, Cleta Mitchell, raised the prospect that the minority staff had exchanged information with the IRS at a hearing in February. “We want to get to the bottom of how these coincidences happened,” Mitchell said, “and we’re trying to figure out whether any — if there was any staff on this committee that might have been involved in putting True the Vote on the radar screen of some of these federal agencies.” Cummings said in response that Mitchell’s tacit allegation was “absolutely incorrect and not true.”
Issa on Wednesday seized on the similarities between the two letters, though they were issued before Cummings’s staff contacted the IRS for additional information about True the Vote in January 2013. “Although you have previously denied that your staff made inquiries to the IRS about conservative organization True the Vote that may have led to additional agency scrutiny, communication records between your staff and IRS officials – which you did not disclose to Majority Members or staff – indicates otherwise,” Issa said. “As the Committee is scheduled to consider a resolution holding Ms. Lerner, a participant in responding to your communications that you failed to disclose, in contempt of Congress, you have an obligation to fully explain your staff’s undisclosed contacts with the IRS.”
The Oversight Committee will convene on Thursday morning to vote on whether to hold Lerner in contempt for her refusal to testify before the panel and House speaker John Boehner has indicated he will take the matter before the full House.
Since June of last year, Cummings has pressed Issa to call the investigation off and the two have repeatedly butted heads. Tomorrow’s hearing is unlikely to be an exception.