House Republicans on Tuesday accused the Internal Revenue Service and President Obama's hand-picked new leader of the agency of trying to "delay, frustrate, impede and obstruct" their investigation into abuses of conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status, and pointedly warned that it could be breaking the law.
The two top investigators in the House sent a letter to acting Commissioner Danny Werfel, whom Mr. Obama tapped to get a grip on the troubled agency. They said the IRS has turned over less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the documents that the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform wants to see. The exact number is 0.019 percent of relevant documents, the investigators said.
In one case, an IRS manager wanted to turn over documents but the agency refused to let her do so, Reps. Darrell E. Issa of California and Jim Jordan of Ohio wrote in a letter to Mr. Werfel. They said the documents that have been sent are so messy and full of redactions that it appears the IRS is trying to stall Congress.
"Obstructing a congressional investigation is a crime," the two men said in the letter. "The systematic manner in which the IRS has attempted to delay, frustrate, impede and obstruct the committee's investigation raises serious concerns about your commitment to full and unfettered congressional oversight."
The accusations were made on a day when another House panel, the Ways and Means Committee, released an analysis showing that conservative groups faced more intrusive questions than did liberal groups applying for the same tax-exempt status.
Rep. Dave Camp, Michigan Republican and Ways and Means chairman, said conservative groups were asked three times as many questions and were less than half as likely to get approval from the IRS.
Like the oversight committee, Mr. Camp said his investigators also are waiting for the IRS to turn over more information.
"This is just the tip of the iceberg. We have received less than 3 percent of the documents responsive to the investigation," he said.
The IRS denied that it was trying to stonewall the investigations. Spokeswoman Michelle Eldridge said the agency has received "numerous data requests" from Congress and is trying its best to comply.
She said the IRS has tapped 70 lawyers to process the documents, which require review to make sure confidential taxpayer information isn't disclosed.
"We have been in contact with committee staff, and we continue to provide them updates as we diligently work through these requests," Ms. Eldridge said.
She said the committee is misleading when it says 65 million pages of documents are relevant to the investigation — the figure that produced the 0.019 percent number. She said the IRS expects to produce no more than 460,000 documents.
Questions continue to swirl around IRS efforts to vet tea party and conservative groups that applied for tax-exempt status, especially in the wake of the Supreme Court's Citizens United case that opened the door for groups to engage more freely in political speech.
The agency's internal auditor initially said tea party groups were specifically targeted, though he later reported that some liberal groups were also part of the special scrutiny.
Rep. Sander M. Levin of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee, said Tuesday that there has been no evidence linking the IRS behavior to the White House and that Republican analysis of the data is misleading.
"The overwhelming fact remains that Republicans will do everything they can to deflect attention from their inability to do almost anything — a record that has earned them historically low ratings from the American public," Mr. Levin said.
Republicans say the information they are uncovering suggests bigger problems at the IRS.
On Monday, Mr. Issa and Mr. Jordan asked for a broader investigation. In addition to special scrutiny for new applications, they said, the IRS also went after groups that had been approved years earlier, putting them through audits and asking inappropriate questions.
The two lawmakers said the documents that the IRS has turned over to their committee often have portions blacked out well beyond what would be necessary to protect taxpayer information.
Before he was sent to the IRS, Mr. Werfel was a top official in Mr. Obama's budget office at the White House.
He was deployed to the tax agency after the acting commissioner resigned in the days after the agency acknowledged that it improperly targeted conservative groups for special scrutiny in their applications for tax-exempt status.
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