House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell E. Issa on Wednesday accused his Democratic counterpart, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, of colluding with the IRS to attack one of the tea party groups that was targeted by the tax agency for intrusive scrutiny and long delays.
Mr. Issa and five other top Republicans said they just last week were given emails showing Mr. Cummings sought information from the IRS about True the Vote, a conservative tax-exempt organization that drew the ire of liberals for pushing states to eliminate potentially bogus names from their voter rolls.
Mr. Issa, California Republican, said the IRS employees appear to have discussed confidential taxpayer information as they debated how to respond to the request from Mr. Cummings — though it's unclear what response they ended up giving to the Maryland lawmaker, who is the ranking Democrat on the oversight committee.
"It is unclear whether the IRS shared True the Vote's confidential taxpayer information with you or your staff through either official or unofficial channels," Mr. Issa said, though he stressed that the IRS didn't convey any of the information to the GOP, nor did they even alert Republicans of the request for information. Mr. Issa indicated he thought that was hypocritical since Mr. Cummings has repeatedly accused Republicans of refusing to share their requests or information they received.
Mr. Cummings, in a reply letter, said the accusations were both misleading and wrong.
He said he only requested "publicly available information" from the IRS.
"According to your logic, simply requesting access to public information is somehow evidence of a nefarious conspiracy," he wrote.
Mr. Cummings said it's no secret he has been concerned about True the Vote's activities, pointing to a political contribution the group made to a GOP-affiliated fundraising organization.
"To this day, I still have not received an adequate answer as to why this organization should be allowed to make political donations while retaining its 501(c )(3) status," Mr. Cummings wrote.
At one point in public testimony earlier this year, Cleta Mitchell, a lawyer for True the Vote, wondered allowed whether congressional staffers "might have been involved in putting True the Vote on the radar screen of some of these federal agencies."
Mr. Cummings vehemently denied that at the time, calling it "absolutely incorrect and not true."
In his new letter, Mr. Issa laid out a series of questions that Mr. Cummings asked of True the Vote, which he said were so similar to the questions the IRS asked that they raised questions of coordination. The questions involved the computer software True the Vote uses, its training procedures and a list of jurisdictions the group has targeted for cleaner voting rolls.
"The timeline and pattern of inquiries raises concerns that the IRS improperly shared protected taxpayer information with your staff," Mr. Issa wrote.
True the Vote applied for status as a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization. The founders also created another organization, King Street Patriots, which applied for 501(c )(4) status. Catherine Engelbrecht, who founded both organizations, said soon after their creation, she, the groups and her business were subjected to multiple investigations, audits and inquiries from federal agencies ranging from the FBI and IRS to the Occupational Health and Safety Administration and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Wednesday's letter marks the latest escalation in what's become a bitter relationship between the two men. Mr. Issa last month cut off Mr. Cummings' microphone at a hearing with former IRS employee Lois G. Lerner, and Mr. Cummings demanded and received an apology.
Then, over the past week, Mr. Issa accused Mr. Cummings of trying to work out a secret deal with Ms. Lerner, and Mr. Cummings vehemently denied that.
The two men will likely clash again Thursday when the committee is slated to meet and consider holding Ms. Lerner in contempt of Congress for refusing to answer the committee's questions. She has asserted her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
Mr. Cummings argues Mr. Issa botched the proceedings and tainted any contempt finding, and he is backed by more than two dozen lawyers who have issued memos or quotes saying contempt shouldn't be invoked in this case.
On Wednesday, Mr. Cummings released a report from the Congressional Research Service arguing that there is no historical precedent for the House to find Ms. Lerner in contempt.
In the report, CRS went back to the 1950s, when then-Sen. Joseph McCarthy was investigating communists in the U.S. government. In an instance that appears to be similar to Ms. Lerner's exchange with Mr. Issa, a witness testifying to Mr. McCarthy asserted her innocence and then refused to answer follow-ups.
A federal court upheld the woman's right to remain silent.
"Sixty years ago, Joe McCarthy tried — and failed — to hold an American citizen in contempt after she professed her innocence and asserted her rights under the Fifth Amendment. I reject Chairman Issa's attempts to re-create our committee in Joe McCarthy's image, and I object to his effort to drag us back to that shameful era in which Congress tried to strip away the constitutional rights of American citizens under the bright lights of hearings that had nothing to do with responsible oversight and everything to do with the most dishonorable kind of partisan politics," Mr. Cummings said.
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