The chief watchdog who discovered the extra IRS scrutiny of conservative groups on Thursday rejected Democratic efforts to portray his investigation as partisan, saying Internal Revenue Service officials withheld key information about a lookout list for some liberal groups until last week.
Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration J. Russell George testified that it was Lois Lerner, the former head of the division that handled tax-exempt applications, who said the agency targeted conservatives.
“It is imperative for me to emphasize that our audit never labeled groups as ‘conservative’ or ‘liberal,’” he said.
Still, Mr. George’s numbers indicate that far more of the 298 political groups seeking tax-exempt status during the 2010 and 2012 elections singled out for intrusive scrutiny had “tea party” or other conservative labels in their names. None of the cases used “occupy” in the name, while just seven had “progress” or “progressive.”
Amid the confusion, Republicans and Democrats traded barbs over the direction of the investigation into the IRS.
But it was Mr. George who was on the defensive during much the hearing — a stark contrast from when the lawmakers’ ire was directed at the IRS during Mr. George’s testimony in May. Then, Mr. George, had just issued a report saying IRS agents in a Cincinnati office improperly singled out the conservative groups. He blamed ineffective management for allowing the practice to continue for more than 18 months, delaying hundreds of applications for more than a year.
Democrats are upset that his initial report did not flag terms such as “progressive,” “progress” or “occupy” Wall Street that also were used on “be on the lookout” (BOLO) lists for additional scrutiny.
“If all of the groups are on the table, one concludes targeting only after comparing the groups, and I don’t see evidence of that kind of rigorous comparison, Mr. George, in your work,” said Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat who represents the District of Columbia.
Mr. George replied by saying that “occupy” groups, for example, were on a watch list but not on the political advocacy tab his team was provided by IRS officials and charged with looking at in the audit.
Mr. George, an appointee of President George W. Bush, also pointed out that he was a page at the 1980 Democratic National Convention and a founder of the Howard University College Democrats before he “saw the light” and joined the Senate staff of Republican Bob Dole in college.
“But I think anyone who has worked with me on either side of the political spectrum will agree that I call it as I see it. I have never allowed personal or political views to affect decisions,” he said.
Rep. Trey Gowdy, South Carolina Republican, chided others for trying to find tangential political connections in Mr. George’s work.
“Keep going. Keep at it, and don’t let the detractors get you down,” Mr. Gowdy said.
Chairman Darrell E. Issa, California Republican, pointed out that if politics were a factor for Mr. George, he could have leaked information while he was in the process of compiling the report.
Rep. Michael R. Turner, Ohio Republican, agreed.