Amid multiple scandals, IRS commissioner prepares to enforce Obamacare penalties

Koskinen says he’s an ‘optimist’ as crunch time nears

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Just days after clashing sharply with Republican lawmakers over his agency’s political woes, Internal Revenue Service Commissioner John Koskinen said Wednesday he remained an “optimist” despite multiple investigations demanding more information into suspected IRS targeting of conservative and tea party groups for special scrutiny.

“It’s illusory to think that we’ll never have a problem or make a mistake, that things will always go the way we’ve planned,” Mr. Koskinen told a National Press Club luncheon. “Instead, my goal has been for us to find problems quickly, fix them promptly, make sure they stay fixed and, perhaps, most important be transparent about the entire process.”

House Republicans exploded last week when Mr. Koskinen — who was not at the agency when the suspected targeting first took place — said it will take years to fully comply with requests for information and records in the scandal. The commissioner acknowledged Wednesday that the targeting charges meant that “doubt has been cast by some on the independence of the IRS.”

Mr. Koskinen’s remarks come at a busy time for the IRS. Not only are six investigations underway over possibly politicized audits, but tax season is in full gear, and the IRS is set to play a critical role in enforcing the insurance mandate at the heart of President Obama’s Affordable Care Act.

“If we can have a smooth filing season next year, including the appropriate review of the returns of taxpayers claiming tax credits for health insurance,” he said, “the public and the Congress will have to say: That’s some organization with an amazing workforce.”

“It may take me a while to convince taxpayers that we’re from the IRS and we’re here to help you,” he added. “The IRS is an agency of career civil servants who are dedicated to serving the American taxpayer in a fair and impartial manner.”

But, he said, the IRS will not stop going after those trying to illegally exploit “loopholes” in the tax code.

“Our goal is to have everyone pay the right amount — not more, not less — and if you’re consciously cheating and trying to figure out ways to avoid taxes, you’re the people we’re after,” Mr. Koskinen said. “I’m happy to chase you to the end of the earth and see if we can’t throw you in jail.”

New to the IRS‘ mission this year is a mandate to help enforce the Affordable Care Act. Preparers are already reporting that many tax filers remain confused or uninformed about their responsibilities to obtain health insurance. The IRS is charged with collecting the penalty from those it determines should have bought health insurance and failed to do so.

Mr. Koskinen, 74, also said his agency faces funding problems as it prepares to take on a bigger workload. On another closely watched issue, he said IRS officials are slowly but surely working their way toward issuing a new rule to define what political activities will be permissible for groups seeking nonprofit status. But he said the rule will probably not be finished before the end of the year.

Groups on both the left and right have expressed concerns that the rule will be written too tightly and prevent even basic political education activities such as drafting voter guides and staging candidate forums.

Mr. Koskinen and his aides have been getting an earful as they draft the new rule.

The comment period for the proposed rule closed last month with the second highest total of comments for any proposal in the agency’s history, according to a survey by the Sunlight Foundation, a watchdog group.

Most of the critical comments were generated from conservative nonprofit groups urging their supporters to speak up against the IRS plan. However, some liberal groups, including the Alliance for Justice and the American Civil Liberties Union, also voiced disapproval.

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