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Answers on IRS only raise more questions and calls for a special investigation
Three days of hearings have shown that IRS scrutiny of conservative organizations extended beyond a few rogue employees in Cincinnati, that the agency staged its announcement of the bad news to try to limit the damage, and that the White House knew more, and knew it earlier, than it first admitted.
Republicans argue that they also uncovered evidence that the auditor's report could have been completed months ago — even before the November elections. They also said an internal IRS investigation confirmed the untoward behavior as early as July 2012.
On Thursday afternoon, Lois Lerner, who was director of tax-exempt organizations at the Internal Revenue Service at the time, was put on administrative leave.
But each of those developments has only raised more questions in a scandal that is beginning to have what House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, called the "drip, drip, drip" that justifies a full inquiry.
"Every day there's something new. And we don't know how deep this extends within the administration, and that's why our committees are going to continue to investigate this," Mr. Boehner told reporters earlier Thursday.
"The IRS systematically violated the rights of Americans for almost two years. Treasury Department knew about this last year, and the White House was made aware of it last month, yet no one — no one thought that they should tell the president. Fairly inconceivable to me."
Ms. Lerner, who already had been moved to head the IRS office that oversees President Obama's health care law, ignited the political firestorm May 10 by admitting that the agency used partisan criteria to parse applications for tax-exempt status from early 2010 to May 2012.
Ms. Lerner's admission at an American Bar Association event appeared to catch the Obama administration off guard. Within days, acting IRS Commissioner Steven Miller was forced to resign and admit to Congress that Ms. Lerner's apology was staged through a prearranged question from the audience.
The development also irked Rep. Darrell E. Issa, California Republican and the House's top investigator, who released emails this week suggesting that the audit by J. Russell George, the Treasury inspector general for tax administration, should have been ready in September — two months before Mr. Obama was re-elected.
Congress still knows precious little about who at the IRS thought it would be OK to target tea party and other right-leaning groups for extra scrutiny. Neither Ms. Lerner, who refused to testify this week citing her right against self-incrimination, nor Mr. Miller nor former Commissioner Douglas H. Shulman could give names.
Deeming it obstruction at best and criminal at worst, lawmakers have threatened to name a special prosecutor to obtain answers.
House Republicans want to know whether people in high places — even the White House — orchestrated the political targeting. They rejected the notion that a few bad apples in Ohio — all of whom reportedly had different bosses — took it upon themselves to burden conservatives seeking tax-exempt status.
The audit says the IRS field office developed inappropriate criteria in early 2010 to single out groups with terms such as "tea party," "patriot" and "9/12" in their names. By July of that year, the unit circulated a list that called on specialists to "be on the lookout" for tea party cases.
Ms. Lerner ordered the Cincinnati field office in July 2011 to change its criteria to "political, lobbying or advocacy" when deciding which 501(c)(4) applications to flag.
But specialists, viewing her instructions as too broad, again started to use policy-based criteria in January 2012. Republican lawmakers raised questions about reports of intense and laborious scrutiny of conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status, which prompted the audit.
The IRS changed its criteria once more in May 2012 to bring it in line with Treasury Department regulations.
Astonished by this month's revelations, lawmakers held hearings in quick succession before the House Ways and Means Committee, the Senate Finance Committee and the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
Ms. Lerner said she did nothing wrong but refused to answer any questions from the House oversight committee Wednesday, prompting a rebuke and threats to haul her back for another hearing.
"After consulting with counsel, Chairman Issa has concluded that Ms. Lerner's 5th amendment assertion is no longer valid," committee spokesman Ali Ahmad said Thursday in an email. "She remains under subpoena, [and] the Committee is looking at recalling her for testimony."
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, said Thursday that she did not know Ms. Lerner's motives but thought the reluctant IRS official should have testified.
"I do think the American people deserve answers," Mrs. Pelosi said Thursday. "I wish that she would have provided them."
Who knew what?
Officials with the Treasury Department and Obama administration have denied inside knowledge of what was going at the IRS.
The White House has edited its narrative of what top staff knew about the pending audit report.
At first, White House spokesman Jay Carney said Mr. Obama learned of the inappropriate targeting through news reports. But he didn't volunteer any details about high-level staff who had warning about the audit.
He told reporters last week only that White House counsel Kathryn Ruemmler knew about the IRS probe the week of April 22, and later specified it was April 24. He waited until days later to reveal that several senior White House aides, including chief of staff Denis McDonough and deputy chief of staff Mark Childress, knew that same week.
Even though his top aides knew, he said, they never informed the president or discussed it with him until he learned of the targeting May 10 when it broke in the news.
On Capitol Hill, lawmakers admonished Mr. Shulman for failing to recognize that something was "rotten in [his] shop" during his tenure from 2008 to November 2012.
Mr. Shulman testified that he was reluctant to step into the fray or update Congress on suspected wrongdoing while the inspector general was looking into the problem.
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About the Author
Tom Howell Jr. covers politics for The Washington Times. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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