The FBI finally has begun to contact some of the tea party groups targeted by the Internal Revenue Service for inappropriate scrutiny in the first public signs that the administration's criminal investigation is progressing.
A lawyer representing some of the tea party groups that battled the IRS for tax-exempt status told The Washington Times that a "small number" of his clients were recently contacted, seven months after the investigation was supposed to have begun.
The progress was revealed a day after The Times reported that the Justice Department lawyer who is leading the investigation into the IRS, Barbara Kay Bosserman, has donated more than $6,000 to President Obama's presidential campaigns — a move that, for many Republicans, has called into question the entire investigation.
"They say the fox isn't good to guard the henhouse; the fox is probably not good to investigate the henhouse, either," said Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican. "I think these investigations need to be done by independent people outside of the administration."
Mr. Holder ordered an FBI investigation in the days immediately after the internal auditor of the IRS revealed that the agency had been inappropriately targeting tea party groups for intrusive scrutiny and wrongly delayed the approval of hundreds of conservative groups' applications for tax-exempt status.
Little has been heard about the progress of the investigation in the eight months since, and House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell E. Issa began his own investigation into the FBI's efforts.
The FBI has rejected many of Mr. Issa's requests for documents, but the California Republican said he did learn that Ms. Bosserman was leading the investigation from the Justice Department. On Wednesday, Mr. Issa sent a letter to Mr. Holder saying the selection of an Obama campaign donor tainted the entire investigation.
The Justice Department said federal law and department policy prevent officials from doling out assignments based on a career employee's political views, and that denial of an assignment based on campaign donations would violate a worker's right to participate in the political process.
Ms. Bosserman didn't respond to requests for comment about her donation history or about the status of the investigation.
The news that the FBI has begun contacting some of the tea party groups signals that some action has been taken.
"After seven months of no contact from federal investigators, a small number of our clients recently received a request for an interview from the FBI," said Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the American Center for Law & Justice, which represents more than three dozen groups.
He said the clients were evaluating FBI's request but were troubled by the revelation of Ms. Bosserman's political leanings.
"This development creates a serious conflict of interest and raises more questions and doubts about the Obama administration's promise to get to the bottom of what happened," he said.
The IRS internal auditor found that the agency singled out tea party groups for intrusive scrutiny, with agency investigators asking questions about groups' reading lists, members' political affiliations and volunteer histories, and work with other tea party groups.
Later revelations showed that some liberal groups also were caught up in the special scrutiny, but not to the level of the tea party-affiliated organizations.
It's unclear how many of the hundreds of tea party groups that were targeted have been contacted by the FBI during its investigation.
Cleta Mitchell, a lawyer who represents some groups, said none of her clients heard from investigators. She said that represents a failing of the investigation.
"Normally, don't you first interview the victims? I mean, I've watched enough cop shows over the years. You interview the victims. You don't interview the perp," she said.
The FBI declined to comment on its investigation and referred a reporter to a letter it sent to Mr. Issa late last month outlining some of its efforts but declining his request for documents from the investigation.
"We would request that the committee permit the investigators to complete their investigation and consult with federal prosecutors, as appropriate, to determine whether the evidence reveals a prosecutable violation of any statutes within our jurisdiction," Stephen D. Kelly, assistant director for the FBI's office of congressional affairs, said in the Dec. 31 letter. "As a result, we cannot provide the documents requested at this time while the criminal investigation is active and ongoing."
Asked about the investigation and Ms. Bosserman's role in leading it, House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, said he was troubled by a pattern of obstruction from the Obama administration.
"The administration has not been forthcoming with regard to the IRS investigation. Furthermore, they've not been forthcoming when it comes to the Benghazi investigation or Fast and Furious," he said. "And the administration can try to stonewall as much as they want, but these issues are not going to go away. The American people have a right to know the truth. And for the administration that came in five years ago promising to be the most transparent administration in history, they've got a very poor record."
• Dave Boyer contributed to this article.
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