Political appointee’s hands-off excuse is rejected at IRS hearing

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Former IRS Commissioner Douglas H. Shulman’s testimony that he deliberately kept himself in the dark about the tax service’s brewing scandal runs counter to the responsibilities of agency heads regardless of whether they are political appointees, some government analysts said.

Mr. Shulman, at the center of the storm over the agency’s targeting of tea party and conservative groups for special scrutiny, told Congress this week that he intentionally distanced himself from the controversy because he believed that, as a political appointee, he should not get involved in cases being investigated by the agency’s inspector general.


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But some observers — including frustrated lawmakers of both parties at a House hearing Wednesday — noted that Mr. Shulman was appointed to a five-year term at the Internal Revenue Service by President Bush, a Republican, in March 2008, and they said the overlap into the Obama administration should have allowed him to do his job without fear of political consequences.

As with posts like the chairman of the Federal Reserve, the five-year term for the IRS chief is designed in part to limit partisan influence as occupants frequently serve through different administrations.

“When we talk about the continuity of government, we’re talking about the functioning of government and the best way possible,” said Jennifer Marsico, a senior researcher in government at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. “In spite of being a political appointee, your job is to do your job. … Keeping yourself in the dark doesn’t seem like the best way to fulfill justice.”

Mr. Shulman’s stance became even more tangled when it emerged from Federal Election Commission records that he and his wife contributed to the Democratic National Committee and to Democratic candidates in the years before Mr. Bush named him to head this IRS. Mr. Shulman, then a top executive in a financial industry trade group, gave $500 to the DNC in 2007, and his wife contributed to the campaigns of Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry in 2004 and Rep. Donna F. Edwards, Maryland Democrat, two years later.

The question of Mr. Shulman’s political giving and party affiliation did not come up Wednesday at the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing. But the panel’s top Republican and Democrat expressed frustration with Mr. Shulman’s argument over his hands-off role as a political appointee.

Committee Chairman Darrell E. Issa, California Republican, said he found it hard to believe Mr. Shulman did not know “something was rotten in your shop.” Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, Maryland Democrat, said the former IRS chief failed in his duty to “set the record straight” with Congress once he learned of the agency’s missteps.

The IRS website spells out the duties of the IRS commissioner: “The commissioner is responsible for overall planning, directing, controlling and evaluating IRS policies, programs, and performance.”

A guide to the “rules of engagement” for political appointees, written by Joseph Ferrara and Lynn Ross of Georgetown University in 2004, examined the “myth” that political appointees often don’t care about improving the agencies they are chosen to lead.

“Truly effective political appointees understand that they must earn the trust of the career managers they lead,” they wrote. “One way of doing this is by taking on the role of organizational steward.”

Mr. Shulman, who was IRS commissioner until November, told the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday that he didn’t learn the full details of the agency’s political targeting until the inspector general released his report last week. He reiterated Wednesday that he didn’t tell anyone in the Treasury Department or the White House because he was awaiting the results of the IG’s audit. The IRS is part of the Treasury Department.

“At the time I learned about this list, I felt I was taking the appropriate actions and that my course was the proper one, and I still feel that way today,” Mr. Shulman said.

At another point in the hearing, Rep. Jim Jordan, Ohio Republican, noted that White House logs indicated that Mr. Shulman visited the White House at least 118 times during his tenure.

So many visits and the possibility of improper IRS targeting of conservative groups “didn’t come up in casual conversation?” Mr. Jordan asked.

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